“It is just about the greatest thrill there is in the world, that feeling of living in a little universe in which all you have is your eyes and your head and an idea which if solved will give the world something new.”
Edwin Land, "Annual Christmas Message to Employees of the Polaroid Corporation," December 23, 19424

Edwin Land defined greatness as bringing "to the world a wonderful and special way of solving unsolved problems."5 He remembered after his father chastised him as young boy for dismantling a phonograph, from then on "nothing or nobody could stop me from carrying through the execution of an experiment."6 As a child, he was drawn to the beauty and utility of chemistry and optics. Kaleidoscopes and stereoscopes, optical wonders of the 19th century, held a particular fascination for Land. He appreciated what a photograph meant from a child's perspective: "The world around the child is shifting and fleeting . . . . To a child, a photograph gives a permanent thing that is both outside himself and part of himself."7

Edwin Land was born May 7, 1909, to Matie Goldfaden Land, who studied physics, and Harry Land, who ran a scrap metal and real estate business in Connecticut. In high school at the Norwich Free Academy, Land excelled in physics and became enthralled with the classic Physical Optics by Robert W. Wood. "In Physical Optics I read about . . . polarized light and mirages and Wood's own way of doing things. . . . I decided that the world needed a synthetic polarizer, an extensive sheet of polarizing material, in order to be able to carry out on a large scale all the things implied by Wood's stories."8 Land began to develop a core belief that "the role of industry is to sense a deep human need, then bring science and technology to bear on filling that need."9 As automobile ownership increased exponentially through the 1920s, Land aligned his research of polarizers with what he considered to be the worthy goal of eliminating the increasing danger of highlight glare at night.

Land entered Harvard College in 1926. After the fall semester, he took a leave of absence to live in New York City. Over the course of the next three years, in the reading room of the New York Public Library, where Land had access to the Library's impressive collection of scientific volumes, and in the basements of a series of rented apartments, he devoted himself to the development of a synthetic light-polarizing material. "You want to be undisturbed. You want to be free to think not for an hour at a time, or three hours at a time, but for two days or two weeks, if possible, without interruption," he reasoned. "Then, you get it straight and you embody it, and during that period of embodiment you have a feeling of almost divine guidance."10

It was commonly understood that planes of light normally vibrate on vertical and horizontal planes and on angles between those planes. In 1852, Dr. William Bird Herapath discovered that combining iodine with quinine salt produced tiny crystals with light-polarizing characteristics that could direct and block planes of light. But low-cost polarizing material remained elusive, as these artificially produced crystals, called herapathite, were too small and expensive to create a useful material.

Land's breakthrough came in 1928 when he discovered that with a magnetic field he could align microscopic crystals suspended with a lacquer solution in a way that oriented scattered vibrations of light in one direction. He then learned that by coating a thin sheet of plastic with microscopic crystals, he could stretch and align the crystals before the material dried. This synthetic polarizing material could be used to block out reflective waves of light that glance off the surface of an object and appear as glare. Land found that placing one polarizing filter over another at a right angle halted all light vibrations. Moving the second filter back and forth created variable vibrations of light. In 1929, with Donald L. Brown, a patent lawyer, and his attorney, Julius Silver, Land applied for his first patent for a light-polarizing sheet.

In New York, Land met Helen Maislen, known as Terre, who had studied under Clarence Kennedy, an art historian at Smith College, and the two married in 1929. Land returned to Harvard and continued his research on polarizers in the Harvard Physics department. Thanks to the influence of one of his physics instructors, George W. Wheelwright III, the department granted Land his own laboratory, an unusual resource for a young undergraduate.11 At a Harvard Physics Colloquium in 1932, Land presented a paper on his synthetic polarizing material; that same year Wheelwright convinced him to leave college before graduation to start a company together.12 In 1933, they formed Land-Wheelwright Laboratories, and Land received patent #1,918,848, for "Polarizing Refracting Bodies," the first of more than 500 patents he would acquire during his lifetime.

Over the next several years Land and Wheelwright set up operations at various locations in the Boston area where they continued to expand their laboratory and manufacturing facilities to design and build specialized equipment and machines that would produce polarizing sheets. They began in a room in a garage on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, moved to a barn in Weston, then a building on Dartmouth Street in Boston's Back Bay convenient to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Boston Public Library, to a larger space on Columbus Avenue in Boston, and eventually to a facility on Main Street in Cambridge. Land received offers to join General Electric and Harvard Medical School where he would have far more access to funds, equipment, and personnel for research and development. But the young entrepreneur preferred instead to work within the parameters of his own research-based company that would afford him greater freedom and control.

In order to realize a variety of applications for his new invention, Land would need to produce reams of sheets of his synthetic polarizing material. "Exploring how innovation happens, one has to underline how the startup is in a sense hanging by a thread," Land biographer Victor McElheny maintains. "There is a huge probability of failure to hit on a new technology that will make a market."13 As he moved from the laboratory to the factory, from basic to applied research, Land addressed the challenges faced by startups: research and development, personnel, patents, financing, mass production, and marketing. Along with Silver and Brown, he began to assemble a talented team including: Howard G. Rogers, who left Harvard to join Land-Wheelwright Laboratories and eventually became director of research at Polaroid; William J. McCune, Jr., an engineer and graduate of MIT who became quality control officer at Polaroid; and Richard T. Kriebel, a gifted writer who became director of public relations.

In 1934, Eastman Kodak signed a contract with Land-Wheelwright Laboratories to purchase light polarizers, known as Polascreens, for camera filters that would reduce glare. The following year, Land-Wheelwright Laboratories entered a contract with the American Optical Company, a major manufacturer, to produce sunglasses, marketed as Polaroid Day Glasses—another critical milestone towards commercial viability for the fledgling enterprise. With "variable sunglasses" users could adjust the degree of glare they wanted to eliminate. Polaroid promotional literature affirmed that "vibration-direction has been a scientific curiosity, and little more. Now, Polaroid puts it under control commercially for the first time. It is fundamentally a new product."14

  • 4. Edwin H. Land, "Annual Christmas Message to Employees of Polaroid Corporation," University Theatre, Cambridge, MA, December 23, 1942, 6, Edwin H. Land speech files, Polaroid Corporation Records, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
  • 5. Edwin H. Land, "Generation of Greatness: The Idea of a University in an Age of Science," Ninth Annual Arthur Dehon Little Memorial Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, May 22, 1957, Edwin H. Land speech files, Polaroid Corporation Records, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
  • 6. Land quoted in Robert Lenzner, "Land: The Man Behind the Camera," Boston Globe, October 17, 1976, B7.
  • 7. Land quoted in Philip Taubman, "The Most Basic Form of Creativity," Time 99, no. 26 (June 26, 1972): 96.
  • 8. Edwin H. Land, "Pointillism and Laser Scintillation: A Posthumous Lecture by R.W. Wood," Rowland-Wood Symposium, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, November 21, 1975, in Mary McCann, ed., Edwin H. Land's Essays, vol. 3, Color Vision (Springfield, VA: Society for Imaging Science and Technology, 1993), 119.
  • 9. Land quoted in Business Week, "Polaroid: Turning Away from Land's One-Product Strategy," March 2, 1981, 109.
  • 10. Edwin H. Land, "Can We Generate Scientists with a Reliable Relationship to the Past without a Redundant Relationship to the Future," Address to Junior Science Symposium, Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, April 18–19, 1963, Edwin H. Land speech files, Polaroid Corporation Records, Harvard Business School.
  • 11. The Harvard Physics Department was run by Theodore Lyman.
  • 12. Land did not graduate from Harvard, but he received numerous honorary degrees as well as honors from scientific and photographic societies.
  • 13. Victor K. McElheny, interview by Melissa Banta, August 8, 2016.
  • 14. "What Polaroid Does . . . " Polaroid Advertising Literature, 6, Polaroid Corporation Administrative Records, Box I.47, Folder 1, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.