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Instant History

Fall 1987 | Volume 3 |  Issue 2

Fifty years old this year, the Polaroid Corporation has eschewed what its corporate communicators call “exercises in nostalgia.” Instead, the organization that gave the world the instant photograph is sponsoring a round of forward-looking events—a decision profoundly characteristic of a company that resists definition, historical or otherwise. Although curators are sifting through the several million documents and objects in Polaroid’s two-year-old archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts, no definitive corporate history has been or is likely ever to be written, at least not by anyone connected with Polaroid. “There are simply too many different views of what goes on here,” explains one curator. Or as a Polaroid vice-president put it more than a decade ago to a hapless reporter, “You come up here and try to put us in a mold. We’re not in a mold.”

The evasive attitude comes naturally to a company whose founder, Edwin H. Land, has made an art out of the Delphic pronouncement. “To sense a deep human need and … then satisfy it” was how he once described the ultimate function of Polaroid. Of its future he also intoned: “Everything we do must be important and nearly impossible.” Even such elusive promises, though, have histories.


Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1909, Edwin Land developed an early flair for science and a fondness for reading optics textbooks in bed. In the fall of 1926 he entered Harvard College. A few months later, while visiting New York City, Land had an epiphany of sorts: stunned by the nighttime array of illuminated billboards, marquees, streetlamps, and headlights on Broadway, he was suddenly sure he knew how to eliminate hazardous glare, by polarizing the light as it emerged from its source.

The concept wasn’t entirely new. It had been known since the seventeenth century that certain natural crystals have a polarizing effect; they transmit light waves vibrating in one direction only. That effect, Land had quickly realized, could be used to reduce the glare of reflected light vibrating on many planes. No one had hit on a truly practical polarizing substance yet, but the seventeen-year-old was uncannily certain he would succeed.

Land took a leave of absence from college, set up a lab in a rented room in Manhattan, and studied polarization at the New York Public Library. Within two years he had developed the first synthetic polarizer, a sheet of plastic embedded with microscopic crystals and stretched in one direction until the crystals were perfectly parallel. Light waves that passed through this brushlike molecular structure vibrated on a single plane; those vibrating in a perpendicular direction were absorbed.

Land applied for a patent on his headlight-polarizing scheme in 1928 and went back to Harvard. But once he had learned how to make big sheets of the polarizer, in 1932, he dropped out of school for good and set up a tiny commercial lab in a barn in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with George Wheelwright, a fellow student. Both in their early twenties, they had no business experience and a product for which there was no established market. Nonetheless, in 1934, the year that Land received his basic patent on the sheet polarizer, he licensed it to Eastman Kodak for making photographic light filters. The next year Land persuaded the American Optical Company to sign a major contract for use of the polarizer—now called “Polaroid”—in their sunglasses.

The new material was versatile. Teachers used Polaroid disks to demonstrate optical effects; jewelers and fishermen wore the lenses to work; and a member of the Salvation Army used the stuff to prove that God could have easily blotted out light.

Land-Wheelwright Laboratories soon drew the attention of the Wall Street financiers Lewis Strauss, W. Averell Harriman, and James P. Warburg, and in 1937 the three men helped Land muster $750,000 to launch the Polaroid Corporation. At its first board of directors meeting, they handed back to Land virtual control of the company; at twentyeight he became president, chairman of the board, and director of research. He did not relinquish his central role until his retirement, in 1982.

With headquarters in Cambridge, Polaroid began to flourish under a principled regime; it never borrowed money, never acquired another company, and threw most of its profits back into research. Thanks to this nurturing, Polaroid Labs cranked out 3-D movies and synthetic quinine in the 1940s, the ultraviolet microscope in the 1950s, and a new dye-developer molecule in the 1960s.

Polaroid’s most memorable creation sprang almost full-blown from the brow of Edwin Land. Its coming, as he describes it, was inevitable: “All that we at Polaroid had learned about making polarizers and plastics, and the properties of viscous liquids, and the preparation of microscopic crystals … was preparation for that day in which I suddenly knew how to make a one-step photographic process.”

Like the idea for the artificial polarizer, the thought of an instant camera came to him unexpectedly, during a family vacation in 1943. His three-yearold daughter asked him when she could see the pictures he had just snapped. Within an hour, he recalled, the “camera, the film, and the physical chemistry became clear.” Back in Cambridge, he and his staff began seriously to work out the details.

Land demonstrated the new technique in 1947. It worked like this: An image was exposed on a strip of negative paper, which would then be pulled through a set of rollers along with a strip of positive paper. The positive carried small pods of developing fluid that the rollers would squeeze open, spreading the solution evenly between both strips. The silver salts would migrate from the negative paper to the positive, leaving an image that the fluid developed. The paper strips would then be yanked out of the back of the camera and peeled apart after one minute, yielding a sepia-toned, deckle-edged positive print.

Some considered it a gimmick with no commercial value; the head of a major photographic supply house swore that the instant camera would become a thing of the past within six months. Land remained sanguine. There were natural reactions, he felt, to any great invention, which by definition must be “startling, unexpected, and … come to a world that is not prepared for it.”

Polaroid’s most memorable creation sprang almost full-blown from the brow of Edwin Land.

Land’s own hopes for instant photography were nothing short of Utopian. The invention, he said, offered the complete “realization of an impulse: see it, touch it, have it.” His conviction grew; after introducing the advanced SX-70 camera twenty-five years later, he announced that it could have “the same impact as the telephone on the way people live” and would be “a necessity to everyone, once they learn how to use it.” The encomium reached its height a few years later when Land called the camera a “magic device” that “in its technological innocence appears on the scene suddenly as an … instrument for discernment of prehistoric bonds to each other.”

Without presuming to judge the effects of Land’s camera on human fellowship, it seems fair to say that the device has not yet achieved the social status of the telephone. But Polaroid’s latest offering, the Spectra System Onyx, seems to embody a more subtle change in the corporate vision. The new camera has been denuded—arguably of its magic, certainly of its innocence—by a clear plastic lid that exposes the electronic operations of automatic focus and exposure. Where Land might once have seen an entire “mechanism for relating to life and each other,” the Onyx seems designed to cement a simpler relationship. It is, in the words of the company annual report, no more—and no less—than a “technically sophisticated camera with which the photographer can interact.”

QUEENS, N.Y. : A bucolic scene greeted visitors to the New York Hall of Science last summer. At one corner of the twenty-three grassy acres surrounding the museum lounged the Superpumper, a faded red behemoth custom built in 1965 for the New York City Fire Department. Nearby, a loader/backhoe of more recent vintage squatted in the sun, while its neighbor, a battered helicopter from around 1954, flattened foliage with its pontoons.

It was Big Machine Summer, an outdoor display of about a dozen vehicles dating from 1926 to the present. Some, like the Brooklyn Union Gas Company’s 1980 Sand Sucker (it can vacuum up three cubic yards of gravel a minute), are still being used. Others, like the helicopter (the Nassau County Police Department’s first), will never move again. In any case, it didn’t matter; all the ignition keys had been removed so that visitors could clamber into the front seats and grab the controls of machines they’d only dreamed of running.

“They seem brutal,” remarked Jane Safer, coordinator of special projects at the museum, “but they’re really very elegant. Take the loader/backhoe, for instance,” she said, gesturing toward the insectlike vehicle, claw in back and bucket in front. “It weighs almost six tons but can lift itself up off the ground with only sixty-nine horsepower.”

Indeed, the loader/backhoe’s supple gyrations as it plucked some soil and—as promised—suspended its own bulk from two spindly-looking hydraulic outriggers was a pleasing sight. Equally impressive was a flaming orange 1948 snowblower. It can still throw snow up to sixty feet away and chew through ice by twirling the two enormous screws on its front.

The most moving presence by far, though, was the Mack Truck Superpumper. Equipped with a submarine engine that once pumped up to eightyeight hundred gallons of fresh or salt water per minute, it used to shoot a stream that ran the length of three city blocks and could knock down a brick wall. At thirty-four tons, the Superpumper is the most powerful landbased firefighting system ever built. So why was it put out to pasture? Because it was simply too enormous. It couldn’t get down a city street.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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