One of Steve Jobs’ biggest heroes is Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid. Former Apple CEO John Sculley describes a meeting they had years ago and how both Land and Jobs felt that products existed all along — they just needed to discover them.
Dr Land was saying: “I could see what the Polaroid camera should be. It was just as real to me as if it was sitting in front of me before I had ever built one.”
And Steve said: “Yeah, that’s exactly the way I saw the Macintosh.” He said if I asked someone who had only used a personal calculator what a Macintosh should be like they couldn’t have told me. There was no way to do consumer research on it so I had to go and create it and then show it to people and say now what do you think?”
Both of them had this ability to not invent products, but discover products. Both of them said these products have always existed — it’s just that no one has ever seen them before. We were the ones who discovered them. The Polaroid camera always existed and the Macintosh always existed — it’s a matter of discovery. Steve had huge admiration for Dr. Land. He was fascinated by that trip.
John Byrne, who worked with Sculley on his book, offers additional details on that meeting and Jobs’ reaction.
Sitting in Land’s laboratory, Jobs found the great inventor and management thinker in a generous mood. “The world is like a fertile field that’s waiting to be harvested,” Land said. “The seeds have been planted, and what I do is go out and help plant more seeds and harvest them.”
Riding back to a nearby hotel in a taxi, Jobs turned to Sculley and said, “Yeah, that’s just how I feel. It’s like when I walk in a room and I want to talk about a product that hasn’t been invented yet. I can see the product as if it’s sitting there right in the center of the table. What I’ve got to do is materialize it and bring it to life, harvest it, just as Dr. Land said.”
“The world is like a fertile field that’s waiting to be harvested. The seeds have been planted, and what I do is go out and help plant more seeds and harvest them.” -Edwin Land
So just who was Edwin Land? The instant camera made him famous, but he invented much more than that.
Blinded by the lights
In 1926, Land was a Harvard student walking along Broadway in New York City. He was overwhelmed by the glare from the headlights and store signs. He sensed a safety hazard and wondered if polarized lights could reduce that danger. He dropped out of school and began doing research at the New York Public Library. Eventually, he found a laboratory at Columbia University whose window was regularly unlocked. He would climb in at night and conduct experiments. He designed the first inexpensive light polarizing filters and eventually returned to Harvard and was provided a lab to do further research.
There, Land shared his vision with his physics teacher and they created Land-Wheelwright Laboratories. In 1934, Eastman Kodak gave Land-Wheelwright an order for $10k dollars worth of polarizing filters. Kodak wanted a polarizer laminated between two sheets of optical glass, but neither Land nor Wheelwright had any idea how to make it. Nonetheless, they accepted the order and successfully created what they called “Polaroid.” The company changed its name too.
Although the initial major application was for sunglasses and scientific work, it quickly found many additional applications: color animation, 3-D movie glasses, tinted windows, and more.
During World War II, Land worked on military equipment including dark-adaptation goggles, target finders, the first passively guided smart bombs, and a stereoscopic viewing system called the Vectograph which revealed camouflaged enemy positions in aerial photography.
The first instant camera
His landmark invention came after WWII ended. While on vacation, Land’s three year old daughter asked him why she couldn’t see a photo he had taken of her right away. He tried to explain to her they still needed to be developed, but that didn’t comfort her.
So Land went into the lab and created a system of one-step photography using the principle of diffusion transfer to reproduce the image recorded by the camera’s lens directly onto a photosensitive surface — which now functioned as both film and photo.
Polaroid originally manufactured 60 units of The Land Camera. 57 were put up for sale at Boston’s Jordan Marsh department store before the 1948 Christmas holiday. Polaroid marketers incorrectly guessed that the camera and film would remain in stock long enough to manufacture more. They were wrong. All 57 cameras and all of the film sold on the first day.
Land continued to improve the camera and film over the years. Polacolor film made instant color photos possible in 1963. In 1972, the SX-70 replaced the wet, peel-apart development process with dry films that developed in light. In 1978, Polavision created an instant color movie-making system.
One of Polaroid’s biggest fans was photographer Ansel Adams. “Many of my most successful photographs from the 1950’s onward have been made on Polaroid film,” he wrote. “One look at the tonal quality of the print I have achieved should convince the uninitiated of the truly superior quality of Polaroid film.” Adams also became a consultant to Land and tested new films and products for Polaroid for over 35 years.
Land wound up second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents he received (535). As a scientist, he developed a new theory of color vision. During the cold war, he served as a science advisor to Eisenhower and spearheaded the development of the U-2 spy plane and NASA. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom — the highest honor granted to civilians in the U.S.
Like Jobs, Land also was creative in how he marketed his inventions. For example:
When he was trying to sell his polarizers for use as sunglasses, he rented a room at a hotel and invited executives from the American Optical Company to meet him there. The late afternoon sun produced a glare on the windowsill; Land put a fishbowl there and the glare rendered the goldfish inside it invisible. When the executives arrived, Land handed them each a sheet of polarizer and they were able to see the fish instantly. Land told them that from now on their sunglasses should be made with polarized glass, and the company bought the idea.
And Land, like Jobs, believed that market research was unnecessary. He felt any invention would sell if people believed it was something they could not live without.
One more similarity: Land eventually was asked to leave Polaroid. Jobs, in this 1985 interview, discussed Land’s troublemaker status and how dumb it was to kick someone out of his own company.
Dr. Edwin Land was a troublemaker. He dropped out of Harvard and founded Polaroid. Not only was he one of the great inventors of our time but, more important, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organization to reflect that. Polaroid did that for some years, but eventually Dr. Land, one of those brilliant troublemakers, was asked to leave his own company — which is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of. So Land, at 75, went off to spend the remainder of his life doing pure science, trying to crack the code of color vision. The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.
A few months later, Jobs got the boot from Apple.
“We work by exorcising incessant superstition that there are mysterious tribal gods against you. Nature has neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences. You can use science to make it work for you.” -Edwin Land
Update: In this comment, Tom Hughes, Design Director for the Macintosh project and ex-employee of Land, explains how the meeting was set up and what happened.
Ryanon 18 Nov 10
The Mac was not spun from pure imagination. In Jobs’ case, he “discovered” the key elements of the product during a tour of Xerox PARC. The Mac was certainly a brilliant simplification and democratization of the Xerox Star, and added some important refinements to user interfacework that had been under way for decades.
I’d be curious if there was a similar precursor to the Polaroid. From what I can tell, their camera was actually a much bigger leap from what came before than the Mac, iPod and iPhone (all brilliant products). The iPad may actually be a comparable break.
Asa Williamson 18 Nov 10
Michelangelo had a very similar idea on sculpting, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”.
Roberton 19 Nov 10
Great inspiring article.
Heads up on a typo… So just who was Edwin Land? The instant camera made him famous, but he invented much more than that.
GeeIWonderon 19 Nov 10
Very nicely stylized magazine-style article. The content/analysis/narrative—yeah, well that’s another story (the analogies and analysis are at the very least forced) but I applaud the attempt to go to a magazine format (is this a hint as to a new medium?)
(Also saying that Land, like Jobs did anything is the same as saying that Newton, like your average 17 year old, did Calculus).
RFon 19 Nov 10
I really dig that a small software-as-a-service firm let one of your core team put hours into putting this thing together, especially because it’s only indirectly related to software. (That not even having read it yet. But I will! Starred! :)
Jameson 19 Nov 10
IIRC, in “On Writing” Stephen King talks of stories in a similar fashion, as like already being there. I think he describes himself as like an archeologist excavating them.
Hamranhansenhansenon 19 Nov 10
There ought to be a name for the type of brain damage that causes someone to shout “Xerox PARC!” whenever the genesis of the Mac is mentioned, as though they are revealing some grand scheme that only they know about. The research Apple purchased from PARC is just one component of the early Mac. The Mac owes more to the Apple II than to the Alto. The point of the Mac was not graphics any more than the point of the Land camera was chemicals.
Luneoson 19 Nov 10
Thank you for another great story!
It reminds me the visionary quote from Henry Ford:
If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.
Tim Benjaminon 19 Nov 10
Great article – thanks.
Добавкиon 19 Nov 10
Great thinking, indeed.
Now you should teach us how to materialize our ideas when we know nothing ‘bout the topic we have ideas for…
For years, for example, I have an idea about a cooking facility that does not exist but how can I manufacture it?
Tom Hugheson 19 Nov 10
Interesting article, but all serendipity for Sculley who was just along for the ride. He just happened to luck out. And, there was no pilgrimage… no planned meeting with Dr. Land. I was working for Steve as Design Director for the Macintosh project and we were in Boston and I asked Steve if he’d like to meet Dr. Land, whom I had worked with before Apple. I called Dr. Land and he agreed to meet Steve. We arrived to find a BBC documentary film crew there. Dr. Land excused them and we began a 3 hour visit which included a glimpse into color experiments that were in his lab, to his personal office and an amazing review of some of his personal collection of photographs. The memorable part of this was that Steve was meeting someone who legitimately could be, almost uniquely, a mentor for him. And, clearly, they shared an awareness of the importance of good design as it contributed not only to their products, but to their corporate culture as well.
Forgot the sloganon 19 Nov 10
This is a well known phenomenon. In some languages, the word ‘inventor’ is rendered as ‘discoverer’.
I’m pretty sure 37signals founders were able to see, right in front of them, basecamp and all of their other ‘inventions’ before they’ve ever built them. It always works like that, for any successful product. If you can’t clearly see your intended product even before you put down pencil to paper, you’re wasting your time trying to build it. You’ll end up with some mumbo jumbo that no one needs nor wants.
Or, as Miles Davis said: “If you can’t first hear the note in your head, you won’t be able to play it!” How true…
Polo Valdovinoson 19 Nov 10
I got to meet Douglas Engelbart two years ago, someone else who deserves more recognition. In one demo he introduced teleconferencing, hypertext, and the mouse back in 1968. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MPJZ6M52dI
Andrés Mejíaon 20 Nov 10
I didn’t like this article. It feels like a Wikipedia entry.
Dane Maxwellon 20 Nov 10
Remarkable. Thank you for putting this together. Loved learning that Land was 2nd to Edison for patents. That’s bloody impressive!
FranGon 20 Nov 10
Any chance we could get a quick list of links on 37signals to all the inspiring people you guys have written about? These stories are great.
oomuon 21 Nov 10
the “mac” was discovered in a way
yes, Xerox does a tremendous of works and innovation
but none was in an usable state, made to create a “graphical personal computer”.
it was needed the imagination, will and power of Steve Jobs in Apple to force the invention of the mac.
Xerox managers did not believe in the potential of their engineers, they dismissed to use the inventions in computing.
- the mac interface : there are true innovation and inventions in it.
Of course, icons, windows, and so on was in infancy in Xerox, Athena project and others, but to create a really useable stack on a tiny computer with a tiny tiny cpu was not a mere task.
You shouldn’t minimize the work of Apple.
- thanks for the story about Polaroid. It’s always great to remind people of inventors like Land and what was a company like polaroid.
BKon 21 Nov 10
Another 37 Signals Book on heroes I hope is in the works.
Michael Wenyonon 22 Nov 10
Thanks for this story. Land resembles not only Jobs, but also Gates, who like Land left Harvard to be an independent inventor.
Thanks, too, for mentioning the role of the New York Public Library, which has fostered other important inventions including the photocopier, which led to the laser printer. The library recently cut back on buying science/technical materials because they were seen as expensive and because ‘scientists get these materials through their employers’. In truth, inventors and entrepreneurs often don’t have an employer and even with the Internet they need information which is not free. Equally, many companies have cut back on their own technical libraries. Polaroid had an excellent library when I worked there in the 1990s.
More on NYPL and its inventors in this blog: http://www.nypl.org/blog/2009/01/30/nypl-mother-invention
click here for more infoon 22 Nov 10
I must say that’s quite inspirational and I think that it would be of a very good thing to have some inspiration drawn from the way these great men lived and shape up their own lives. It is just the urge to excel that brought them this far.
Dennitzioon 22 Nov 10
Dr. Land, like Jobs, may have been one of those geniuses whose work springs from ideas they’ve encountered before. For instance, the Germans were using a Vectograph-type viewer long before WWII… I only know because I have one in my stereoscopic viewewr collection. How it differs from his, I couldn’t say…
orcaon 22 Nov 10
polaroid finds new life through ipod/iphone. Lots of new apps like hipstamatic provide old look in new platform. Cool.
Bob Landon 23 Nov 10
Thanks for posting, Matt. I wanted to share that in my few years at Polaroid, employees would come from all over the company to simply share their unsolicited Dr. Land (or “Din”) story. These ranged from asking me to come to their basement lab to play with their new 15 mega pixel camera (this was 1995) that he somehow inspired to telling me the story of when Dr. Land stole an employee’s microwave pizza. (love that one).
One common theme: even the ones who were frustrated that Dr. Land “messed” with their process, spent too much time or money chasing “crazy” projects or canceled their project for “no good reason”, they all had some level of genuine LOVE and respect for him and his genius.
I’ve never met Steve Jobs but from the products he delivers, the people he hires and for having the wisdom and humility to seek advice from fellow rule breakers, I’m confident he’s loved too.
gzon 24 Nov 10
I was lucky enough to listen to interactive lectures on color vision that Land recorded for MIT students. I still remember them clearly, a tribute to his ability to explain abstruse concepts.
This discussion is closed.