By Mike Brewster
Anyone bedeviled by a small child constantly asking "Why?" will forever be put to shame by Edwin Land, best known as the inventor of instant photography and founder of Polaroid Corp. On a sunny winter day in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1943, Land's three-year-old daughter Jennifer asked why she couldn't see the picture Land had just taken of her, right then and there. According to a speech Land gave many years later, "Stimulated by the dangerously invigorating plateau air, I thought, 'Why not, why not design a picture that can be developed right away?'"
While it took his daughter's prompting for Land to create the instant camera and change the picture-taking habits of millions of people around the world, he was already a giant among scientists by the late-1930s for his groundbreaking work on light polarization. In fact, Land, whose 533 patents stands second only to Thomas Edison, occupies a singular niche at the nexus of science, art, and commerce: a master inventor, a genius with color and photography, and a businessman who created the model for the modern, research-based tech company. Not bad for a two-time Harvard dropout.
A LAB OF HIS OWN.
Land was born on May 7, 1909, in Norwich, Conn. His father, Harry Land, ran a scrap-metal and salvage business. Land was an excellent student at Norwich Academy, where, through his readings on science and technology, he first became intrigued by the idea of light polarization. While light rays are normally made of waves that vibrate in various directions, polarized light is confined in one direction. Scientists knew that concentrated light would be helpful for numerous commercial uses, but to that point no one had unlocked the secret of harnessing polarized light.
Land had entered Harvard in the fall of 1927, but left after one year to focus on his light polarization research. He moved to Manhattan and in 1929 devised an apparatus for polarizing light -- what he called the sheet polarizer -- which consisted largely of tiny iodide-quinine crystals. He applied for the patent for his sheet polarizer just days before his 20th birthday.
Land returned to Harvard and so impressed the chairman of the physics department with his polarization research that he was given his own laboratory to work in, unheard of for an undergraduate. But Land dropped out again in 1932 to set up Land-Wheelwright Laboratories in Boston with a former Harvard faculty member, George Wheelwright III. The word polaroid was coined for Land's improved plastic light-polarizing material that Land-Wheelwright now manufactured for use in sunglasses and car headlights and windshields, among other things. The name Polaroid was soon adopted for the company itself.
In 1936, still years away from his instant-camera research, Land was honored by the National Manufacturers Assn. as one of the 25 most significant people of the previous 25 years, sharing the award with the likes of Henry Ford and radio pioneer Edwin Armstrong. "People were tumbling over themselves to honor Land, even then," says Victor McElheny, who worked as a consultant in the early 1970s at Polaroid and later wrote the Land biography, Insisting on the Impossible. "Here he is being honored with industrialists like Henry Ford, and he's sitting in the center of the first row, honored as the inventor of the sheet polarizer. The respect for him as a scientific mind was just unbelievable."
As for the development of the instant camera, it took five years from that fateful day in New Mexico for Polaroid's Land Camera to hit the market in 1948. Then, in 1959, Land announced that an instant color-picture system had been invented, and by 1963 those cameras were on the market as well.
Land's reputation in scientific circles led him to his chairmanship of a secret intelligence panel for President Dwight D. Eisenhower that advised the President on the U-2 spy plane, development of military surveillance satellites, and a future space program. Land even wrote the original memo about what NASA's mission should be.
Like many visionaries, however, Land didn't always see eye-to-eye with those focused on the here and now. In 1977, Polaroid suffered a huge debacle with its Polavision instant movie system, which flopped commercially. Land was heavily criticized by shareholders and the board of directors for not concentrating more on the bottom line and was asked to leave the company. Years later, in a Playboy interview, Apple (AAPL ) co-founder Steve Jobs would say the decision was one of the dumbest things he had ever heard of in the history of American business.
After being forced out, Land spent his time doing research on the nature of color at his Charles Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Land died on Mar 1, 1991 in Cambridge at the age of 81. As former colleagues planned his memorial service, one of them said, according to McElheny, "You know, he never had a typical reaction to anything."
As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation
Mike Brewster is New York-based writer