#263 Lands Polaroid A Company and the Man Who Invented It

Summary Notes


In "Land's Polaroid," author Peter Wensberg, a former Polaroid executive, delves into the life and mind of Edwin Land, the brilliant and relentless inventor who founded Polaroid and revolutionized photography with instant cameras. Wensberg's firsthand experience offers a unique perspective on Land's unconventional approach to innovation and business, highlighting his disdain for groupthink and his belief in the individual's potential for greatness. Land's commitment to quality and originality is exemplified in his insistence on real leather for the SX-70 camera, despite the cost and difficulty, paralleling Walt Disney's refusal to compromise on details. Both Land and Disney understood that consumers appreciate and respond to the dedication behind a product. The book chronicles Polaroid's journey from near bankruptcy to selling millions of cameras, protected by Land's strategic patenting, which created a technical monopoly. Wensberg's narrative captures the essence of Land's pioneering spirit and the profound impact he had on his company, industry, and the entrepreneurs who followed in his footsteps.

Summary Notes

Theme: Polaroid's Unconventional Beginnings

  • Polaroid's founder, Edwin Land, is described as having exceptional intelligence and a unique approach to problem-solving.
  • Land's refusal to accept pre-existing ideas led to the innovation of cameras that develop photos instantly.
  • Land's approach to innovation and discovery was to start from scratch, challenging preconceived notions.

"It's run by a man who has more brains than anyone has a right to. He doesn't believe anything until he's discovered it and proved it for himself."

This quote highlights Land's intellectual prowess and his philosophy of personal verification before acceptance, which contributed to the innovative culture at Polaroid.

Theme: Land's Impact on Photography

  • Land's perspective on what a camera should do led to the development of instant photography.
  • Despite being a lifelong photographer and considering himself smart, Speaker A admits he never thought of instant photography.

"But Land was the first person to think about it that way."

The quote emphasizes Land's originality and pioneering thought process in creating instant photography, a concept that was not obvious to even experienced photographers.

Theme: Land's Influence on Steve Jobs

  • Edwin Land is presented as a significant influence on Steve Jobs, serving as his hero and influencing his career.
  • Jobs admired Land's ability to stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences.
  • Jobs met with Land several times, describing the meetings as akin to visiting a shrine.

"He influenced the career of Steve Jobs more than anybody else for Steve's entire life."

This quote underscores the profound impact Land had on Jobs, suggesting that studying Land could be beneficial for entrepreneurs.

Theme: The Importance of Studying Edwin Land

  • Speaker B emphasizes the importance of studying Edwin Land, especially for entrepreneurs.
  • The goal is to determine the most accessible biography for someone new to Land's story to read.

"One of my main goals is to convince as many entrepreneurs as I can to study Edwin Land."

The quote indicates Speaker B's belief that entrepreneurs can gain valuable insights from studying Land's life and work.

Theme: Polaroid's History and Leadership

  • Edwin Land's tenure at Polaroid spanned from 1937 to 1982, during which he held several key positions.
  • Polaroid's identity was closely tied to Land's vision and inventions.

"Polaroid, as a company, was, for 45 years, virtually synonymous with Edwin Land."

This quote reflects the deep connection between Land and Polaroid, highlighting his integral role in the company's history.

Theme: Land's Recognition and Honors

  • Despite being a college dropout, Land received numerous honorary degrees and scientific honors.
  • Land held 533 patents and was second only to Thomas Edison in this regard.

"He holds 533 patents, second only to Thomas Edison."

The quote showcases Land's prolific nature as an inventor and his significant contributions to technology and science.

Theme: Land's Personal Traits

  • Land was revered by his employees, though many were intimidated by him.
  • Despite his genius and fame, Land's focus was on his work rather than on public opinion.

"His interest in our reactions was minimal, polite, sometimes kind, but limited by the great drain of energy necessary to sustain his own part."

The quote reveals Land's character as someone deeply invested in his work, with little concern for others' opinions about him.

Theme: The Struggle Before Success

  • Edwin Land experienced years of struggle and setbacks before achieving significant success with instant photography.
  • Land's persistence and dedication over two decades are highlighted as he pursued his vision despite repeated failures.

"At 37, he had achieved everything to which he aspired except success."

This poignant quote encapsulates the challenges Land faced before his eventual breakthrough, illustrating the often difficult path to innovation and success.

Theme: Land's Legacy and Philosophy

  • Land's life is described as a life of the mind, with his own creations and pursuits taking center stage.
  • Land's indifference to others' reactions is likened to the independence of thought exhibited by other great inventors like Claude Shannon and Alfred Lee Loomis.

"They were stars of their own movie. Their life was going to go in the direction as a result of their own independent thinking, and the opinions or the reactions of other people were of no concern to them."

The quote captures the essence of Land's philosophy of self-reliance and independent thinking, which is common among many successful inventors and entrepreneurs.

Reinvention of Photography

  • Edwin Land presented a groundbreaking image of himself, reinventing photography and his company.
  • The image was life-sized and caused a New York Times reporter to tip over in his chair.
  • Land's invention garnered immediate attention from the media and was featured in Life magazine and numerous newspapers.

"In an instant, Lan had reinvented photography, his company and himself."

This quote highlights the pivotal moment when Land's invention changed the course of photography, showcasing the immediate and significant impact of his work.

Impact on Media and Publishing

  • Life magazine featured the photograph, emphasizing its significance in the history of photography.
  • The photograph was also on the front page of the New York Times and in hundreds of newspapers nationwide.
  • Land's invention was a pivotal moment in photographic history and media coverage.

"The picture appeared in Life magazine one week later as a full page."

This quote demonstrates the rapid dissemination and the cultural significance of Land's invention in the media.

The Novelty of Instant Photography

  • The concept of instant photography was unheard of before Edwin Land's invention.
  • Land's technology contrasted with the traditional wait time of a week or two to see developed photographs.
  • The instant review of photographs was a revolutionary change brought by Land's innovation.

"That did not exist before Edwin land."

The quote emphasizes the transformative nature of Land's invention, which introduced instant photography to a world accustomed to delayed photographic development.

Marketing and Product Positioning

  • Land's marketing approach highlighted solving customer problems in human terms.
  • He demonstrated the value of his product by showing how mistakes could be immediately corrected with his new process.
  • Comparing his solution to the existing Kodak products, Land emphasized the convenience and reliability of instant photography.

"This new process allows you to retake the picture immediately and correct the fault."

Land's statement underlines the unique selling proposition of his product, focusing on the ability to immediately retake and perfect photographs.

Edwin Land's Early Influences and Personality

  • At 17, Land was deeply influenced by historical scientific figures and was driven to make his own mark in science.
  • Land's omnivorous reading and self-education were central to his development as an inventor.
  • He admired self-taught scientists like Faraday, Edison, and Bell, and sought to emulate their approach to learning and innovation.

"Land studied and then influenced his work."

This quote reflects the impact historical figures had on Land's aspirations and his approach to scientific inquiry and invention.

Land's Choice of Field: Polarized Light

  • Land decided to focus on polarized light due to its unsolved problems and potential for significant contribution.
  • He sought a field where he could make his mark and chose one that had challenged scientists for centuries.
  • Land's decision was influenced by his desire to emulate the great scientific minds that preceded him.

"The great opportunity was polarized light."

Land's statement captures his strategic choice of a field that presented both a challenge and an opportunity for groundbreaking work.

The Drive for Concentration and Focus

  • Land believed that intense concentration could unlock hidden human resources and potential.
  • He emphasized the importance of focus in an age of distraction, considering it almost a superpower.
  • Land's success was partly attributed to his ability to concentrate deeply on his work.

"My whole life has been spent trying to teach people that intense concentration for hour after hour can bring out in people resources they didn't know they had."

This quote encapsulates Land's philosophy on the transformative power of concentration and its role in achieving success in scientific endeavors.

Land's Early Scientific Endeavors

  • Land's first significant invention was the polarizer, laying the foundation for Polaroid.
  • He dropped out of Harvard to focus on his work, demonstrating a preference for practical education over formal degrees.
  • Land's reputation as a scientist became an asset in developing his inventions into marketable products.

"An education without a degree."

Land's reflection on starting his own lab reveals his belief in the value of hands-on experience and innovation over traditional academic credentials.

Collaboration and Partnership

  • Land's partnership with Willwright was crucial in the formation of Polaroid.
  • They shared a common vision and unconventional approach to science and business.
  • The partnership began with discussions and collaboration, eventually leading to the establishment of a formal laboratory.

"Why don't you and I start one? I have some money and I can fund it."

Willwright's proposal to Land illustrates the beginning of their partnership and the founding of what would become the Polaroid Corporation.

George's Work Preferences and Young Company's Focus

  • George is not interested in working for a company with strict work hours and no weekend work.
  • The young company's main focus is on removing headlight glare from automobiles.
  • They need to secure cash flow into the company quickly.

"Of course not. How would I get anything done? So the young company's main focus is." "They start at 08:00 and work until 430. Then everything shuts down and they all go home. They don't work on Saturdays or Sundays."

George prefers a work environment that allows for flexible hours and does not confine him to a typical 9-to-5 schedule. The company's focus is on automotive headlight innovation, but they are also in urgent need of funding.

Edwin Land as a Showman and Product Demonstrator

  • Edwin Land is known for his reclusive and introverted nature, but excels at product demonstrations.
  • He uses his showmanship to gain interest and investment in his products.

"And so this is where we see that land his entire life. Even though he's considered, like, a recluse and an introvert, he's a gifted showman, and he's really gifted at the product demo."

Despite his introverted nature, Edwin Land is adept at presenting his products in a way that captures attention and support, showcasing his ability to persuade through demonstrations.

Polarizers Applied to Sunglasses

  • Edwin Land and his partner sought a simple consumer product to fund their automotive headlight project.
  • They found that applying polarizers to sunglasses would create an inexpensive, superior product.
  • They arranged a meeting with the American Optical company to pitch the product.

"Looking for a simple consumer product that would provide them with an income sufficient enough to allow them to pursue the automotive headlight project."

The application of polarizers to sunglasses is identified as a viable consumer product that could generate the necessary income to support the primary automotive headlight project.

Product Demonstration Strategy

  • Edwin Land meticulously planned a product demonstration to impress the American Optical company.
  • He used a fishbowl with goldfish and a room with blinding sunlight to showcase the effectiveness of Polarizer.

"The three men walked into a room filled with blinding sunlight. As they squinted, lan said in a pleasant voice, I apologize for the glare. I imagine you can't even see the fish. Here, look through this."

This demonstration was designed to immediately communicate the value of the Polarizer product, leading to its adoption by the American Optical company and the creation of Polaroid dayglasses.

Polaroid's Early Financial Struggles and Navy Contract

  • Polaroid struggled to find business success despite their innovations and patents.
  • A Navy contract during World War II provided crucial funding that saved the company.
  • Edwin Land focused on developing a consumer product to sustain the business post-war.

"Yet they still have not achieved business success. And the reason this is important to know is because it's very likely that they would have been out of business if it wasn't for this navy contract at the very beginning of World War II."

The Navy contract was a pivotal moment for Polaroid, providing the financial support needed to keep the company afloat and allowing them to continue their work on consumer products.

The Invention of Instant Photography

  • Edwin Land was inspired to create instant photography by his daughter's question.
  • He utilized his past experiments and knowledge to develop the instant camera over three years.
  • Land and his team documented their process meticulously, which later helped them win a major patent infringement case against Kodak.

"Jennifer's innocent query was the epitome of a landian question. It took nothing for granted, accepted no common knowledge, tested the cliche, and treated conventional wisdom as an oxymoron."

Edwin Land's approach to innovation was to question everything and disregard conventional wisdom, leading to the groundbreaking invention of instant photography.

Polaroid's Development Process and Need for Speed

  • Edwin Land and his team worked with urgency and tight feedback loops to develop the instant camera.
  • Land's assistant, Doxy Mueller, played a crucial role in maintaining daily progress.
  • Land pushed his team by setting ambitious public demonstration dates to motivate them.

"Each day, Doxy Mueller's telephone rang at 06:30 a.m.. Sharp. Lan gave her his critique of the previous day's work and outlined her tasks for the current day."

The development process for the instant camera was characterized by rapid iteration and constant communication, with Land driving the team to move quickly and efficiently.

Public Demonstration and Product Launch

  • Land set a public demonstration date as a motivator, despite the product not being fully ready.
  • The audacity of announcing a demonstration date galvanized the team to meet the deadline.
  • The successful demonstration and immediate popularity of the camera validated Land's aggressive strategy.

"On the night of the 21st, they would succeed. They would overcome nature. They would be ready."

The public demonstration was a calculated risk that paid off, showcasing the instant camera's revolutionary impact and leading to immediate market success.

Sales Predictions and Market Success

  • Edwin Land made bold predictions for the sales of the instant camera, which his team doubted.
  • The camera was an instant success, selling out quickly and exceeding initial sales expectations.
  • Land's vision and risk-taking led to the creation of a new industry and Polaroid's dominance in it.

"I think we can actually sell 50,000 cameras in the first year."

Land's ambitious sales prediction was met with skepticism, but the instant camera's success far exceeded even his own expectations, demonstrating the power of innovation and the market's appetite for new technology.

Patent Protection and Market Entry

  • Speaker A discusses the difficulty of entering a market where patents restrict competition.
  • High profit margins are achievable due to the protection offered by patents.
  • Patents can lead to monopolistic scenarios, where a single company dominates because others are legally barred from competing.

You literally can't jump in because he's patented everything.

This quote underscores the barrier to market entry created by patents, emphasizing the exclusivity and competitive advantage they can provide to the patent holder.

Polaroid's Success and Peter's Discovery

  • A decade after the initial discussion, Polaroid is presented as a successful company with significant annual sales.
  • Peter is introduced as a gifted individual in advertising and promotion, with a keen interest in sales and scoring.
  • Polaroid, known for its photography and sunglass businesses, is described as a consumer product company led by a genius named Land.

Polaroid was a huge company in my eyes, with annual sales of $65 million.

The quote highlights Polaroid's financial success and stature in the market, which is a key factor in Peter's interest in the company.

Importance of a Corporate Library

  • The presence of a company library is emphasized as a common trait among successful entrepreneurs and businesses.
  • Entrepreneurs, including historical figures and modern leaders, are noted for their extensive personal libraries.
  • Reading and accumulating knowledge is portrayed as a crucial habit for entrepreneurs, aiding in problem-solving and innovation.

There are two full-time librarians here.

This quote illustrates the importance placed on knowledge and learning within Polaroid, suggesting that a well-maintained library is an asset to the company's innovation and success.

Reading as a Tool for Vision and Innovation

  • Fred Smith of FedEx is cited as an example of an entrepreneur who dedicated significant time to reading while building his company.
  • The practice of reading widely is linked to the development of vision and the synthesis of ideas across different disciplines.
  • The habit of reading is presented as a commonality among visionaries and is recommended for entrepreneurs.

Fred Smith created one of the most difficult businesses to create in history.

This quote emphasizes the challenge of building a complex business like FedEx and suggests that reading played a part in overcoming those challenges.

Market Saturation and Growth

  • Peter becomes the head of marketing at Polaroid and challenges the notion that the market for cameras is saturated.
  • Polaroid's sales figures defy previous market analysis predictions, indicating a larger potential customer base than anticipated.
  • The concept of consumer products as evolving ideas rather than one-time purchases is introduced, with Polaroid cameras being bought repeatedly as technology advances.

We sold between four and 9 million Polaroid cameras a year, every year for the next ten years without reaching market saturation.

This quote demonstrates the consistent demand for Polaroid cameras over a decade, refuting the idea of a limited market and highlighting the company's growth strategy.

Commitment to Quality and Detail

  • Land's insistence on using real leather for the SX-70 camera is used to illustrate his commitment to quality and detail.
  • The importance of not compromising on quality, even for seemingly minor details, is likened to Walt Disney's philosophy.
  • The narrative suggests that the success of great companies is often due to the founder's uncompromising stance on quality.

Land had an instinct for packaging.

This quote captures Land's attention to the tactile and aesthetic aspects of his products, which contributed to Polaroid's brand image and customer appeal.

The Role of the Individual in Innovation

  • Land expresses a belief in the individual's capacity for greatness and originality in science and business.
  • The idea of group creativity is challenged, with Land emphasizing the significance of singular minds in driving progress and innovation.
  • Historical figures are cited to support the notion that individual contributions have shaped scientific advancements.

I believe wholeheartedly in the individual capacity for greatness.

This quote encapsulates Land's philosophy that individual insight and creativity are the primary drivers of originality and profound achievements.

Reflections on Edwin Land's Career and Legacy

  • The end of Land's active role at Polaroid is described as an emotional and difficult transition.
  • Land's vision of a company that creates products to fill unperceived needs and provides a satisfying work environment is highlighted.
  • The narrative concludes with a reflection on Land's impact, both as an inventor and as the architect of Polaroid's corporate culture.

The present is the past biting into the future.

This quote, attributed to Land, conveys a philosophical perspective on the continuum of time and the interplay between past achievements and future possibilities. It encapsulates the forward-thinking mindset that characterized Land's approach to business and innovation.

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