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.