#133 Edwin Land Polaroid and The Man Who Invented It

Summary Notes


In "Land's Polaroid," Peter Wensberg delves into the life and legacy of Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid and a visionary comparable to Thomas Edison in inventiveness. Land, revered by his employees yet distant from the public eye, led Polaroid from 1937 to 1982, amassing 533 patents and shaping the company into a scientific and creative powerhouse. Despite the company's financial struggles and Land's eventual forced retirement, his commitment to innovation and education left an indelible mark on the industry. Wensberg provides a unique perspective on Land's character and contributions, having worked closely with him for over two decades at Polaroid, and reflects on the bittersweet nature of Land's story and the broader human condition.

Summary Notes

Polaroid and Edwin Land

  • Edwin Land was the founder of Polaroid and held various titles including chairman, president, CEO, COO, and director of research.
  • Land was known for his privacy and was the most recognized figure in the company.
  • He was deeply involved in the company's advertising, ensuring it maintained high standards.
  • Peter Wensberg worked closely with Land and had a relationship that varied in closeness.
  • Despite not having a college degree, Land received numerous scientific honors and held 533 patents.
  • Wensberg joined Polaroid in 1958 and left in 1982, the same year Land retired from the company.
  • The book "Land's Polaroid" covers the history of Polaroid and Land from 1926 to 1982.

"Polaroid as a company was for 45 years virtually synonymous with Edwin Land. He was its founder. He invented its first products and indeed many of its products and processes throughout the five decades of the company's history."

This quote highlights the significant contributions of Edwin Land to Polaroid, establishing him as the central figure in the company's history.

Importance of Biographies and Personal Impact

  • Reading biographies is essential for understanding how influential people create their own worlds within the world.
  • These stories can inspire perseverance and determination.
  • Biographies provide insights into the lives of those who have passed, reinforcing the inevitability of death and the importance of living life to the fullest.
  • The author, Peter Wensberg, provides a unique perspective on Land due to his direct work experience with him.

"Land's life seemed to be primarily a life of the mind. His great dramas were largely self-created, played on the stage of Polaroid, which he constructed for himself."

This quote from the prologue of "Land's Polaroid" emphasizes Edwin Land's inner world and his role as the principal player in the Polaroid saga, indicating his self-driven nature and focus on his personal vision.

Edwin Land's Philosophy and Innovation

  • Land believed that nature was indifferent to human endeavors, and success depended solely on human ingenuity.
  • The struggle and persistence of Polaroid and Land are highlighted, with a focus on the difficult years leading up to their breakthrough in instant photography.
  • Land's anticipation of success from a young age and the setbacks he faced are discussed.
  • The unveiling of the first Land camera is depicted as a pivotal moment in history, with extensive media coverage.

"Nature doesn't care, he told his young laboratory assistants. By that, he meant that nothing in nature would help or hinder their progress to a solution except their own ingenuity, which, admittedly, was itself a condition of nature."

Edwin Land's quote to his laboratory assistants encapsulates his belief that human progress in science and technology is determined by human creativity and effort, rather than any external natural forces.

Marketing and Communication

  • Land's approach to communication focused on the human impact of his products rather than technical specifications.
  • He compared Polaroid's instant photography to Kodak's process, emphasizing the immediacy and convenience of Polaroid's solution.
  • Land's ability to communicate effectively, despite his preference for internal company discourse, is acknowledged.

"This is one of the most significant pictures we have taken this evening. It illustrates a very important point. If you are not satisfied with a picture, this new process allows you to retake it."

This quote by Edwin Land during a product demonstration emphasizes the innovative aspect of Polaroid's instant photography, allowing consumers to immediately retake photos, contrasting with Kodak's delayed process.


  • The influence and uniqueness of Edwin Land's mind are praised, with a recommendation to read at least one book about him.
  • Land's entrepreneurial spirit and his approach to running Polaroid as an educational and experimental endeavor are highlighted.

"Again, I really do believe this is one of the most important and influential entrepreneurs that has ever existed. The way his mind works is extremely unique."

Speaker A concludes by expressing a strong belief in Edwin Land's importance and influence as an entrepreneur, and the uniqueness of his thought process, encouraging readers to explore his story further.

On-the-Spot Perfect Picture

  • Edwin Land's solution to instant photography contrasted with Kodak's process.
  • Land's technology aimed to eliminate disappointment in photography.
  • The instant photography process was reliable and repeatable.

You never need to be disappointed again. Over and over again, the process repeated, was repeated. No one was disappointed.

This quote emphasizes the reliability and repeatability of Land's instant photography technology, ensuring consumer satisfaction.

Edwin Land's Early Inspirations

  • At 17, Land was consumed by science and invention, contemplating his future contributions.
  • He admired Michael Faraday and was inspired by the lineage of scientific influence from Faraday to Maxwell and Hertz.
  • Land aspired to be a transformative figure in science, like Faraday and Edison.

Land admired Michael Faraday, one of the scientific heroes of the 19th century.

Land's admiration for Faraday illustrates the influence historical figures in science had on his aspirations and career path.

Influential Figures in Land's Studies

  • Land studied various pioneers such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and George Eastman.
  • These figures shaped Land's personality and his approach to innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Land's drive to make a significant impact is likened to Steve Jobs' ambition to "make a dent in the universe."

Edwin Land inspired a lot of people, but directly inspired Steve Jobs.

The connection between Land's influence and Steve Jobs' vision underscores the legacy of Land's impact on future innovators.

Land's Creative Drive and Individualism

  • Land's quest was to make a tangible intellectual contribution through a product or process.
  • He valued individual achievement in advancing humanity and believed in the power of the individual over the group.
  • Land chose polarized light as his field to make his mark, building upon centuries of scientific knowledge.

As I review the nature of the creative drive in the inventive scientists that have been around me as well as in myself, I find the first event is an urge to make a significant intellectual contribution that can be tangibly embodied in a product or process.

This quote encapsulates Land's motivation to create something of lasting value and his belief in the power of individual creativity and innovation.

The Importance of Concentration

  • Land's success was attributed to his intense focus and concentration on his work.
  • His method involved breaking down complex problems into manageable steps and working through them systematically.

He concentrated ferociously on his quest.

Land's fierce concentration on his objectives is highlighted as a key factor in his ability to innovate and succeed.

Hiring the First Employee

  • Land, at 18, dropped out of Harvard to pursue his experiments in New York City.
  • He placed an unconventional ad for a "mechanical dentist" and hired his first employee, Calibro, who stayed with him for 25 years.
  • Calibro's experience working with Land showcased Land's unique and intense working style.

Lan advertised for a mechanical dentist. I don't even know what that means. A dentist technician interested in doing some experimental work.

The unusual nature of Land's recruitment ad reflects his unconventional approach to building his team and starting his company.

Land's Approach to Work and Innovation

  • Land believed in focusing on the work itself, disregarding personal conflicts and distractions.
  • He advocated for taking incremental steps towards a larger goal, emphasizing persistence and dedication.

If you dream of something worth doing, then simply go to work on it. And don't think of anything of personalities, of emotional conflicts, or of money, or of family distractions.

Land's philosophy on work ethic and focus is conveyed, highlighting his approach to overcoming challenges and achieving his dreams.

Comparison with Claude Shannon

  • Land shared similarities with Claude Shannon, including an internal drive fueled by curiosity.
  • Both Land and Shannon would move on from problems once they understood them, leaving the documentation to others.
  • Land and Shannon's work ethics were characterized by brilliance, excitement for science, and unconventionality.

Land had the ability to charm anyone who interested him.

This quote reflects Land's charisma and his ability to engage and inspire others, similar to Claude Shannon's qualities.

Land's Obsessive Nature

  • Land's obsessive nature is compared to that of Enzo Ferrari, with a singular focus on their work.
  • Land's response to a potential job offer illustrates his dedication to his work and his inability to thrive in a conventional work environment.

How could I get anything done?

Land's rhetorical question underscores his need for an obsessive work environment to achieve his goals.

Early Days of Polaroid

  • Land and his partner George Wheelwright faced challenges in delivering their first contract to Kodak.
  • They demonstrated commitment by working continuously to meet their deadline and deliver the product named Polaroid.
  • Land's work intersected with historical figures such as Robert Moses, highlighting his broader impact.

I came in the morning before Christmas. The next time, either land or I changed our clothes was on January 11.

Wheelwright's account of their intense work period reflects the dedication and drive that characterized Land's approach to innovation.

Introduction to "The Power Broker" and Edwin Land's Early Struggles

  • "The Power Broker" is a book about the early history of New York and the concept of power.
  • Edwin Land, nicknamed "Din," and his partner Willwright sought funding after a bomb attack on Wall Street.
  • They met with JP Morgan for financial support but received no concrete results.
  • Land was not discouraged by the high-powered financiers of Wall Street.

It's called the Power broker. It's a really fascinating book. If you're interested about the early history of New York and power in general, I'd recommend picking it up. But this is also where Edwin Land meets JP Morgan.

The quote introduces the book "The Power Broker" and sets the stage for the historical context in which Edwin Land sought financial backing.

Polaroid's Early Financial Struggles and Innovations

  • Polaroid experienced both successes and failures in its early years, with products like Polaroid dayglasses.
  • The company faced financial difficulties, with increasing expenses and stagnant sales.
  • The headlight program failed to be the foundation of a large business as expected.
  • Land felt the frustration of being dependent on others for success and doubted the viability of his business.

Nothing told land that he had built a business that could survive, let alone grow.

This quote emphasizes Land's doubt about the survival and growth potential of his business during its early years.

World War II's Impact on Polaroid

  • The United States Navy provided crucial support to Polaroid during World War II.
  • Land's work for the military, including General Patton and the US Navy, helped sustain the company.
  • Without World War II, Polaroid might have gone out of business.

What he did not tell them was that the United States Navy had saved the company.

This quote reveals the pivotal role of the US Navy in sustaining Polaroid during a critical period.

The Landian Question and the Birth of the Instant Image

  • Land's daughter's question about immediate image viewing sparked the development of the instant camera.
  • Landian questions challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom.
  • Land's past experiences and knowledge were crucial in developing the instant camera.

His first thought was to wonder why he had not asked the question himself.

This quote reflects on Land's realization that his daughter's simple question was a profound insight that he had overlooked.

Edwin Land's Sense of Urgency and "Burning the Boats" Strategy

  • Land felt a sense of urgency to develop new business as World War II ended and military contracts were at risk.
  • He set a public demonstration date for the camera system to motivate his team.
  • Land's strategy was to create a situation where failure was not an option, pushing his team to their limits.

If we win, we survive a race to finish the camera before we run out of money.

This quote depicts the high-stakes situation Polaroid was in, needing to complete the camera before their funds depleted.

Polaroid's Unconventional Culture and Leadership

  • Polaroid had a reputation as a unique and technically innovative company.
  • Edwin Land's intelligence and unconventional thinking were key to Polaroid's culture.
  • Land avoided small talk and always started from the beginning, leading to the creation of the instant camera.

To start with, it's run by a man who has more brains than anyone has a right to.

This quote describes Land's extraordinary intelligence and its impact on Polaroid's culture and success.

Land's Management Style and Work Ethic

  • Land was known for his intense focus and long work hours.
  • He believed in nurturing the brain with both intellectual challenges and physical sustenance.
  • Land's management style was hands-off as long as the work met his standards of quality.

Land believed in feeding the brain. A lab technician might occasionally faint from exhaustion, but never from hunger.

This quote illustrates Land's philosophy of ensuring his team was well-fed to maintain productivity during rigorous work sessions.

David Ogilvy's Influence on Edwin Land

  • Warren Buffett regarded David Ogilvy as a genius for his work in advertising.
  • Ogilvy's persuasive writing skills are evident in his books and biographies.
  • Edwin Land's work ethic and approach to problem-solving were likened to a "predator stalking a solution."

"He worked like a predator stalking a solution, a proof, with perpetual patience and perpetual energy."

This quote exemplifies Land's relentless pursuit of innovation and solutions, highlighting his dedication and work ethic.

Edwin Land's Mentorship and Management Style

  • Land often worked his assistants to exhaustion, valuing their energy and fresh perspectives.
  • He preferred hiring bright liberal arts students, as they had less to unlearn and could rapidly adapt to scientific disciplines.
  • Land's approach was to pursue hypotheses and experiment until a new trail emerged, accepting the inefficiency of science for its effectiveness.

"Many of them had graduated with no scientific background. Land proved many times over that a bright, young liberal arts student could learn the routines of a laboratory and the structure of scientific discipline as rapidly as applicants with technical experience."

This quote highlights Land's unconventional hiring practices and his belief in the adaptability and potential of liberal arts students in scientific fields.

Polaroid's Product-Driven Philosophy

  • Polaroid was a product-driven company, with camera design being the central focus.
  • The company's planning was not heavily influenced by market research or competition, as Land believed in driving innovation from within.
  • Land's first-principles thinking meant he avoided being influenced by others' ideas and instead focused on creating unique products.

"Camera design took pride of place among the engineering functions, because from design of a new camera, all other company decisions flowed."

This quote emphasizes the importance of camera design in Polaroid's product development and overall company strategy.

Edwin Land's Continuous Learning and Education

  • Land had a strong belief in the importance of continuing education throughout one's career.
  • He valued the idea that ongoing education can increase competence and job satisfaction.

"The individual and industry will be better qualified to increase his competence and at the same time, make his job fully satisfying if he continues his education as an integral part of his working career."

This quote reflects Land's philosophy on the importance of lifelong learning and its impact on both individual growth and industry advancement.

The SX-70 Camera and Land's Vision

  • The SX-70 camera was a significant product for Polaroid, inspired by Land's daughter's question and taking 30 years to perfect.
  • Land's focus on quality and innovation was similar to that of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, prioritizing the best product over cost concerns.

"The most important product Polaroid had ever made was the SX-70 camera."

This quote underscores the significance of the SX-70 camera in Polaroid's history and Land's commitment to innovation.

Marketing and Quality in Polaroid's Products

  • Land had an instinct for packaging and insisted on using real leather for the SX-70 cameras, despite higher costs.
  • He was a great marketer but did not wish to be recognized for it, preferring to be known for his contributions to science, engineering, and social philosophy.

"That was so typical of Land. I thought to insist that the camera be covered in leather."

This quote illustrates Land's attention to detail and commitment to quality in product design, even in the face of higher costs.

Polaroid's Challenges with Polar Vision and Patent Lawsuits

  • Polar Vision was a product that Land pushed for despite its complex nature and the existing focus on instant photography.
  • The failure of Polar Vision and the subsequent largest patent infringement lawsuit against Kodak marked a tumultuous period for Polaroid.

"The why, meaning why does this product exist? The why was never examined."

This quote points to the lack of a clear rationale behind Polar Vision, which contributed to its failure and highlighted a significant oversight in product development.

Edwin Land's Legacy and Emotional Trauma

  • Land's departure from Polaroid and the emotional trauma it caused are described poignantly.
  • His pioneering work and the unique corporate culture he created at Polaroid are highlighted as his lasting legacy.

"Giving it up had been the hardest thing he had done in his life. It had been an emotional trauma that engulfed everyone near him."

This quote captures the profound impact of Land's departure on both himself and those around him, marking the end of an era for Polaroid.

The Importance of Reading Biographies

  • The host passionately advocates for the value of reading biographies to gain insight into the lives of influential individuals.
  • Reading is emphasized as a critical activity for personal growth and learning.

"I sincerely believe your life will be better the more you read and expose yourself to these life stories."

This quote encourages listeners to engage with biographies as a means of learning and self-improvement, reinforcing the host's belief in the transformative power of reading.

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