#132 Edwin Land Steve Jobss Hero

Summary Notes


In this episode, the host delves into the life and legacy of Edwin Land, the visionary behind Polaroid and a pioneer of instant photography. Land's philosophy of treating technological challenges as "high technological drama" and opportunities, rather than problems, drove the company through financial hardships and transformative innovation. The host reflects on Land's unique approach to business, emphasizing creativity, individuality, and seeing things in a new light, as opposed to the traditional corporate focus on the bottom line. Land's commitment to inventiveness led to groundbreaking products like the SX-70 camera system and the Polaroid Vision system for instant motion pictures. Despite skepticism from experts and a consumer market initially unprepared for such innovations, Land's unwavering belief in his work and the power of the individual inventor laid the foundation for Polaroid's success. The episode also touches on Land's influence on Steve Jobs, his disdain for the patent system's constraints, and his artistic and almost poetic view of his products as a means to enhance human connection and experience.

Summary Notes

High Technological Drama and the SX-70 Camera System

  • Edwin Land described his company's situation as "high technological drama" in the spring of 1971.
  • The SX-70 camera system was a significant financial investment with millions spent and no returns yet.
  • Polaroid faced manufacturing challenges and scientific issues while developing the camera.
  • Traditional corporate leaders might refer to such situations with terms like "negative cash flow," but Land saw it as an opportunity.
  • Fortune magazine referred to the SX-70 as the "biggest gamble ever made on a consumer product."

"High technological drama was the way Edwin Land described his company situation in the spring of 71."

This quote emphasizes Land's perception of the challenges faced by Polaroid as dramatic and significant, highlighting his unique approach to business hurdles.

Polaroid's Difficult Years and Edwin Land's Optimism

  • The years following 1971 were increasingly tough for Polaroid.
  • Despite the difficulties, Land replaced the word "problem" with "opportunity."
  • Land's outlook differed from the traditional focus of American business, which intrigued the speaker.
  • Polaroid's uniqueness stemmed from its human dimension and Land's vision.
  • Land's role in Polaroid was akin to a New England inventor, a technological visionary, and an embodiment of the American dream.

"But I was struck by the observation that the word problem had completely departed from Edwin Land's vocabulary, to be replaced by the word opportunity."

This quote reflects Land's positive mindset and his ability to reframe challenges as opportunities, which was key to his and Polaroid's success.

Edwin Land's Approach to Creativity and Invention

  • Land trusted his instincts over expert opinions.
  • He believed in creating new markets for innovative products.
  • Land advocated for individual creativity over group efforts.
  • His theory of inventiveness was based on the belief that creativity is a personal attribute.
  • Land's perspective on creativity was published in the Harvard Business Review.

"Land is a man deeply caught up in the creative potential of the individual."

This quote highlights Land's belief in the power of individual creativity and its role in innovation and invention.

Edwin Land's Influence on Polaroid and His Legacy

  • Polaroid's development and the industry it pioneered are closely tied to Land's work.
  • Land is compared to historical inventors and entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford.
  • His inventions, like the instant camera and Polarizing filter, were radical departures from the norm.
  • Land's ability to envision products and bring them to reality was a hallmark of his success.

"The Polaroid story is several different but interrelated stories, all converging in the singular personality of Edwin Land."

This quote encapsulates how Land's personality and vision were central to Polaroid's narrative and the impact he had on the company.

The Instant Image: Edwin Land's Vision and Methodology

  • Land's insights often came as sudden inspirations, but they were the result of extensive preparation.
  • Land's approach was not limited by past impossibilities; he built upon existing knowledge.
  • His "instant image" moments were when problems became clear and solvable.
  • Land's preparation and understanding of the subject matter were crucial to his moments of inspiration.

"Nearly every major insight of Lance's career would happen in a similar fashion."

This quote illustrates the pattern of Land's moments of inspiration, which were pivotal in developing his groundbreaking inventions.

Edwin Land's Early Career and the Foundation of Polaroid

  • Land's interest in light and optics led to the invention of the Polarizer at age 17.
  • He ranked third in the number of patents held, with over 535 in his lifetime.
  • Land's resourcefulness was evident in his use of the New York Public Library and Columbia University's labs.
  • The company Land founded with George Wheelwright, which became Polaroid, started with enthusiasm and confidence.

"So he's going to drop out of Harvard. And it says, lan took a leave of absence from Harvard and moved to New York City."

This quote shows Land's commitment to his work and his willingness to pursue his research outside of conventional academic pathways.

The Philosophy of Excess and Privacy of Edwin Land

  • Land believed that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing to excess.
  • He was a private individual, driven by a desire to outdo his businessman father.
  • Land's drive and imagination were foundational to his success.
  • The intersection of humanities and sciences was important to Land, a belief shared by Steve Jobs.

"There's a rule that they don't teach you at the Harvard Business School. It is. If anything is worth doing, it's worth doing to excess."

This quote reflects Land's philosophy of going beyond the conventional limits to achieve greatness, a trait that defined his approach to work and life.

Early Days of the Company and Survival vs. Ambition

  • Edwin Land realized the need for control over product and customer relationships.
  • He had a vision for a headlight invention that represented both financial stability and public safety improvement.
  • The headlight idea was a motivator for Land and his partner, Wheelwright, to keep the business going despite challenges.
  • Land's confidence in his abilities was a driving force behind his persistence.

"The importance of the headlight idea in the early days of the company as an ongoing dream and motivation cannot be overstated."

This quote emphasizes the significance of the headlight concept as a source of inspiration and a potential opportunity for financial security and public impact.

Kodak Contract and Financial Breathing Space

  • The contract with Kodak provided Land and Wheelwright with funds to continue their research.
  • Kodak's agreement to use Polaroid's polarizing plastic for photographic light filters was a key milestone for the company.

"The revenue from the Kodak contract furnished Land and Wheelwright with a little breathing space, allowing them continue their research."

This quote highlights the importance of the Kodak deal in providing the necessary financial support to sustain the company's research efforts.

Land's Vision and Divergence from the Norm

  • Land preferred the freedom of the business world over the constraints of academia.
  • He aimed to be both a great scientist and a great novelist, showing his high ambitions.
  • Land saw himself as an inventor and innovator and created an environment to support his work.

"I planned a company in which I could work scientifically and still have my inventions used."

Land's quote reveals his intention to build a company that would allow him to pursue scientific work and ensure the practical application of his inventions.

Polaroid's Unique Position and Land's Influence

  • Land's unique perspective and expertise were so valued that investors gave him control of Polaroid.
  • The company's success was tied to Land's intellectual contributions and his ability to innovate.

"Everyone acknowledged that the future of Polaroid corporation would be determined by what went on in the brain of Edwin Land."

The quote signifies that Land's intellect and creativity were recognized as the key drivers of Polaroid's future.

Land's Motto and Product Exclusivity

  • Land lived by the motto of not doing what others can do, focusing on unique products.
  • He abandoned projects like the photocopier when competition (Xerox) entered the market.

"Land was undoubtedly beginning to see the advantage of producing items no one else could offer."

This quote conveys Land's strategic focus on creating products that were unparalleled in the market, ensuring exclusivity for Polaroid.

Land's Ambition and Personal Drive

  • Land was driven by the pursuit of scientific and technical achievements rather than financial gain.
  • He invested in his own potential and in the company he founded, believing in his and Polaroid's capabilities.

"Land had far more faith in his own potential and that of the company he inspired than did any of the other experts looking in from the outside."

The quote illustrates Land's confidence in his abilities and his vision for Polaroid, even when external opinions were doubtful.

Polaroid's Shift to Consumer Market Control

  • Land learned the importance of controlling the product and market by selling directly to consumers.
  • Polaroid shifted focus from being a supplier to creating products that bypassed existing industry structures.

"We learned that the best way is to sell as directly to the consumer as possible, where we could control as many factors as possible in the marketplace."

This quote from a Polaroid vice president reflects the strategic decision to take control of the product lifecycle and engage directly with consumers.

Invention of Instant Photography

  • Land was inspired to invent instant photography after his daughter asked why she couldn't see a photo immediately.
  • He envisioned the concept during a vacation and set out to solve the technical challenges.

"By the time he was done with that brainstorm, he had said he'd solved every problem except the problems that it took from, like, 1941 to 1972 to solve."

The quote humorously indicates Land's initial optimism in solving the complexities of instant photography, acknowledging the years of work ahead to realize the idea.

Land's Personality and Public Image

  • Land was known for his superlative praise for his inventions and dismissive attitude towards competitors.
  • He was relentless in defending Polaroid's innovations and intellectual property.

"He loved using superlatives. If you ever watch jobs product demonstrations, Lamb would talk about how wonderful his inventions were."

The quote compares Land's enthusiastic promotion of his products to Steve Jobs' presentations, underscoring Land's confidence in Polaroid's offerings.

Edwin Land's Inspiration and Showmanship

  • Edwin Land was inspired by his daughter's question about instant photography.
  • He believed in the dramatic presentation and understood human reactions to superlatives.
  • Land's comparison of Kodak's slow photo development process to Polaroid's quick process highlights his flair for the dramatic.

"Theirs evacuates, ours ejaculates."

This quote emphasizes Land's dramatic way of contrasting the speed of Polaroid's instant photography with Kodak's slower process, accentuating the superiority of Polaroid's technology.

Kodak vs. Polaroid: Monopoly and Innovation

  • Kodak had a monopoly on film photography with a profitable system.
  • Polaroid, under Land's leadership, was developing instant photography in secret.
  • Similar secretive development approaches were used by Steve Jobs with the iPhone and Henry Ford with the Model T.

"The Polaroid camera was developed in secret, just like the iPhone was."

This quote underscores the strategic secrecy behind the development of groundbreaking products, drawing a parallel between Polaroid, Apple, and Ford.

Polaroid's Financial Struggles and Innovation

  • Polaroid faced financial difficulties post-World War II.
  • Despite financial distress, Land and his team developed the instant photography system.
  • Innovation occurred in a time of financial hardship, emphasizing the commitment to scientific problem-solving.

"Polaroid was struggling... it was not clear that they were going to survive."

This quote highlights the precarious financial situation Polaroid was in during the development of their instant photography system, illustrating the high stakes and risks involved in innovation.

George Eastman's Legacy and Company Philosophy

  • George Eastman's influence persisted after his death, including his suicide due to severe pain.
  • Eastman and Land built their companies on constants in human desires, such as the delight of photography.
  • Jeff Bezos' philosophy of building around unchanging aspects is mirrored in Land and Eastman's approach.

"The delight that people get from that is constant."

This quote reflects on the enduring appeal of photography, which both Eastman and Land capitalized on, suggesting a business strategy centered around timeless human experiences.

Marketing Strategies for Polaroid's Instant Camera

  • Polaroid had to learn how to market the instant camera with limited experience.
  • Land drew inspiration from Alexander Graham Bell's introduction of the telephone.
  • Polaroid adopted a strategy of exclusivity, starting with a single store and expanding strategically.

"Polaroid would have to handle the marketing of the instant camera itself."

This quote points to Polaroid's challenge of marketing a new product independently, emphasizing the novelty of the situation for the company.

Polaroid's Incremental Marketing Expansion

  • Polaroid's marketing started with a successful launch in a single Boston store.
  • The strategy involved creating demand and exclusivity by limiting availability.
  • Polaroid expanded to Miami targeting vacationers, seeding interest nationwide.

"The first camera was first offered for sale to the public at the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston."

This quote describes the initial, localized marketing approach that led to immediate success for Polaroid's instant camera, proving the product's appeal.

Polaroid's Approach to Criticism and Improvement

  • Ansel Adams was hired as a consultant to critique and improve Polaroid products.
  • Adams' input led to several product innovations.
  • Land valued constructive criticism and saw it as an opportunity for product enhancement.

"Adams signed on as a paid consultant to Polaroid and became famous within the company for his long memos."

This quote exemplifies Land's openness to external expert advice, in this case from Ansel Adams, to refine and improve Polaroid's products.

Edwin Land on Patents and Individual Creativity

  • Land was a strong supporter of the American patent system.
  • He believed that innovation comes from individuals and that weak patent systems hinder significant innovation.
  • Land criticized formal education for stifling individual creativity and the pursuit of greatness.

"To a large and fundamentally uncreative company, patents are a threat and a nuisance."

This quote reflects Land's view that strong patent protection is essential for innovators and that large companies may perceive patents as obstacles to their less creative business models.

The Impact of Visionary Individuals on Scientific Progress

  • Visionary individuals periodically emerge and significantly accelerate scientific progress.
  • These figures introduce new concepts, languages, and perspectives, leading to leaps in understanding.
  • Historical examples include Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein.

"Eously and unpredictably, individuals arise here and there in the world, here and there in time, who introduce great clarifications, new words, new languages and fresh statements which cause the rate of scientific progress to jump ahead by 1020 or 100 years."

This quote emphasizes the sporadic appearance of exceptional individuals who advance science by centuries through their innovative thinking and contributions.

Importance of Individualism in Scientific Advancement

  • Significant scientific advancements often come from individuals who break free from conventional thinking.
  • Creative individuals, particularly in pure science, are naturally rewarded and encouraged by their peers.
  • In applied industrial science, it is crucial for both the individual and industry to promptly share knowledge.

"Just as the great steps in scientific history are taken by the giants of the centuries, where they sloth off the tentacles of the group mind."

This quote highlights the idea that major scientific advancements are made by individuals who can detach themselves from the prevailing group mentality and think independently.

Edwin Land's Philosophy on Running Polaroid

  • Edwin Land believed in being scientifically daring while maintaining financial conservatism.
  • Polaroid, under Land's leadership, avoided debt and financed expansion through its own funds.
  • Land's approach to business was influenced by his proximity to academic institutions and their financial strategies.

"Land's view is that the company should be scientifically daring and financially conservative."

The quote succinctly captures Land's business philosophy, emphasizing a balance between innovation and fiscal responsibility.

Aligning Business with Personal Interests

  • Edwin Land structured Polaroid to reflect his personal intellectual interests, creating a strong alignment between his work and his passions.
  • Land is recognized as an inventor, corporate leader, engineer, and scientist, with his work beginning with the study of light.

"Land had established the company in such a way that its practical economic pursuits were keeping with his own personal intellectual interests."

This quote points out the harmony between Land's personal intellectual pursuits and the economic activities of Polaroid, suggesting a seamless integration of work and personal passion.

The Role of Education and Self-Learning

  • Edwin Land criticized formal education for stifling individual greatness, considering it a societal issue in need of immediate resolution.
  • Land advocated for continuous learning and being the most knowledgeable in one's field, as exemplified by his own exhaustive study of light in his youth.

"Our young people, for the most part, unless they are geniuses, after a very short time in college, give up any hope of being individually great."

This quote reflects Land's belief that formal education often discourages individual excellence, a problem he viewed as detrimental to society.

The Value of Admitting Ignorance

  • Land was comfortable with admitting "I don't know," a trait he demonstrated during seminars and discussions, which is often difficult for many leaders.

"Then I went and asked Dr. Land, and he said, we have no idea."

The quote illustrates Land's willingness to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge, a quality that fosters a culture of honesty and inquiry.

Concentration and Scientific Discovery

  • Land emphasized the importance of concentration for scientific discovery, likening his work to uncovering individual human potential.
  • He believed that scientific insights are not easily transferable and that concentration is crucial for achieving results.

"I find it very important to work intensively for long hours when I'm beginning to see solutions to a problem."

This quote from Land underscores the necessity of intense focus and prolonged effort when approaching the brink of a scientific breakthrough.

Self-Belief and Vision in Business

  • Land's self-belief was reflected in his expectations for Polaroid's success and his view of business as an interconnected aspect of life.
  • He saw business success as a result of doing one's job well, rather than focusing solely on financial gain.

"If anything characterizes the company... it's that we grow and grow and grow, not on the basis of the bottom line, but on the basis of faith that if you do your job well, that the last thing you have to worry about is money."

Land's quote conveys his conviction that business growth should stem from excellence in work, with financial success being a natural byproduct.

Artistic Expression and Product Impact

  • Land had an artistic and romantic approach to describing his products, emphasizing their ability to foster human connections and emotions.
  • He viewed his work and products as contributing to a "warmer and richer world," integrating scientific and professional skills with artistic sensibility.

"We could not have known and have only just learned, perhaps mostly from children from two to five, that a new kind of relationship between people and groups is brought into being by the SX 70."

This quote from Land captures his poetic and humanistic perspective on the impact of Polaroid's SX 70 camera, highlighting its role in enhancing interpersonal relationships.

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