Edwin Herbert Land

Photography is a field where a lot of great minds come together to come up with one technological breakthrough after another. One man who had a lot to offer to the field of photography is Edwin Herbert Land. If you have ever taken a snapshot with a Polaroid camera or if you have polaroid pictures in your room, then he is the man you have to thank.

Who is he?

Edwin Herbert Land was as American scientist and inventor and he is best known for being one of the co-founders of Polaroid Corporation. He was responsible for a lot of photography-related inventions such inexpensive filters that polarized light, his retinex theory for color vision, and his practical system for in-camera instant photos.

His Polaroid instant camera, which went on sale in late 1948, made it possible for a picture to be taken and developed in just 60 seconds or even less.


His Early Life

Edwin Land was born to Martha and Harry Land in Bridgeport, Connecticut where his parents owned a scrap yard. Edwin was of Eastern European Jewish descent by way of both of his parents, and he attended the Norwich Free Academy located in Norwich, Connecticut. It was a semi-private high school where he graduated in 1927. As a matter of fact, the very library from his school was named after him after he died since it was funded by grants given by his family members.

After high school, he went on to Harvard where he studied chemistry but after he finished his freshman year, he left his school and went to New York City instead. It was in New York City that he invented the very first cheap filters that had the ability to polarize light; the Polaroid film. Given that he wasn’t affiliated with any educational centers at the time he didn’t have the tools necessary for the project and needless to say it was rather difficult for him to come up with the filters.

What he did was he sneaked into the Columbia University laboratories during late hours so he could have use of their lab equipment. He also went to the New York City Public library to scour scientific literature for works that touched on polarizing materials and substances. He had his “eureka” moment when he realized that instead of working to grow a large-scale crystal made of a polarizing substance , it was easier for him to make a film that contained millions of micron-sized crystals instead. These crystals could then be coaxed to align with each other.

After he developed that polarizing film, he went back to Harvard University but he didn’t quite finish his studies nor get his degree. Perhaps the problem was that as soon as he found a certain solution to a problem, he lost all interest to write down his findings or find a way to prove his vision to other parties concerned. His instructor had to prod his wife to get answers for his homework problems. She would then take it upon herself to write the answers so he could submit it and receive credit.

His Company

It was in the year 1932 that he put up the Land-Wheelwright laboratories with his physics instructor from Harvard; a man named George Wheelwright. The lab was put up so they could commercialize the polarizing technology that he came up with. Wheelwright came from a family that had money and he agreed to put up the funds for the business venture. After some number of early successes with coming up with polarizing filters for shades and photo filters, their lab received funding from investors from Wall Street so they could expand their business.

The larger company was given the name “Polaroid Corporation” 5 years after in the year 1937.

Land didn’t rest on his laurels through because he went on to make further developments to his products and came up with sheet polarizers which he placed under the Polaroid trademark. Given that the initial application for his product was for use in sunglasses and scientific work, he found other uses for it. Pretty soon, he was using it for things like color animation, glasses in full-color 3D movies, controlling light brightness through windows, a component for LCDs, and so much more.

During WWII, he worked in many military projects and came up with dark-adapt goggles, passively guided smart bombs, and target finders. He also came up with the vectograph which was a special stereoscopic viewing system which revealed the enemy even if they were camouflaged.

On February 21, 1947, he came up with an instant camera and a related film. He called it the “Land Camera” and it went on sale commercially just two years after it was invented. The Polaroid company originally came out with just 60 of the cameras and 57 units were put up for sale at Jordan Marsh in Boston. They thought people wouldn’t go for it and they’d have enough left in stock so they could come up with a second batch but they were wrong; all camera units were sold on just the first day.

During his years with the company, he was quite notorious for coming up with marathon research sessions. When Land came up with an idea, he wouldn’t stop experimenting and brainstorming until he had a working solution. In fact, he would forget to eat if food wasn’t brought to him and he was reminded to eat. As the company grew, he had teams and teams of assistants working different shifts right by his side. As one team wore out, another was brought in so he could work uninterrupted. That was how much of an obsessive worker he was.

His Death

Edwin H. Land bid farewell to the world on March 1, 1991 in Cambridge, MA. He lived to the ripe old age of 81 and upon his death, his trusted personal assistant got rid of all his personal papers and his notes. His body was laid to rest at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge as well.