#40 Insisting On The Impossible The Life of Edwin Land and Instant The Story of Polaroid

Summary Notes


In this insightful exploration of Edwin Land's life, the founder of Polaroid and the inventor of instant photography, the host delves into Land's profound influence on Steve Jobs and the parallels in their approach to innovation and product development. Land, a scientist at heart, defied marketing norms, insisting on creating groundbreaking products that consumers didn't yet know they needed. His obsessive commitment to style, practicality, and consumer appeal, alongside a reliance on intuition over market research, echoes Jobs's philosophy. The discussion highlights Land's pioneering work, including his role in developing the U-2 spy plane and his historic patent battle with Kodak, which resulted in the largest infringement judgment of its time. Land's legacy is cemented as a visionary who, with stubborn determination, believed in making the world something well worth having through relentless innovation and the pursuit of the impossible.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Edwin Land and His Philosophy

  • Edwin Land is celebrated for his invention of instant photography and for being a hero to Steve Jobs.
  • "Insisting on the Impossible" is one of the key texts providing insight into Land's life and work.
  • Land's approach was meticulous, focusing on the details of the work rather than distractions.

"If you dream of something worth doing and then simply go to work on it, and

Constant Experimentation and Testing of Knowledge

  • Edwin Land emphasizes the importance of verifying the validity of knowledge through continuous experimentation and testing.
  • Land's approach is to challenge accepted knowledge rather than taking it for granted.
  • He encourages a daily practice of mastering old insights and contributing new knowledge.

"Is this knowledge actually true? Not just accepted."

This quote underlines the necessity of questioning the status quo and the importance of empirical validation in the pursuit of knowledge.

Entrepreneurship and Continuous Improvement

  • Land advises entrepreneurs to engage in daily learning and incremental improvement.
  • He parallels Sam Walton's approach to building Walmart through consistent, small improvements over time.
  • The concept of perseverance and daily progress is highlighted as a key to successful entrepreneurship.

"The only safe procedure for you now that you have started is to make sure that from this day forward until the day you are buried, you do two things each day. First, master a difficult old insight, and second, add some new piece of knowledge to the world each day."

This quote stresses the importance of lifelong learning and consistent contribution to knowledge as fundamental practices for entrepreneurs.

Perseverance in the Face of Obstacles

  • Edwin Land speaks to the importance of overcoming challenges and not allowing anything to halt progress.
  • He views his role as a scientist experimenting with applications that lead to consumer products.
  • Land's stubbornness and determination are highlighted as vital traits for success.

"From then on, I was totally stubborn about being blocked. Nothing or nobody could stop me from carrying through the execution of the experiment."

This quote reflects Land's tenacity and unwavering commitment to his work, which is essential for pushing through obstacles.

Group Dynamics and Innovation

  • Land criticizes the inefficiency of intelligent individuals when working in groups.
  • He points out that large companies often struggle with innovation, while small companies lack resources.
  • The difficulty for young innovators in finding support within established industries is discussed.

"Intelligent men in groups are, as a rule, stupid."

This quote captures Land's belief that group dynamics can impede the intellectual effectiveness of individuals, particularly in the context of innovation.

Indifference vs. Opposition in Product Development

  • Land identifies indifference, rather than opposition, as the main barrier to innovation.
  • Entrepreneurs must push through societal indifference to succeed.
  • He suggests that eliciting any response, even negative, is better than being ignored.

"The test of an invention is the power of an entrepreneur to push it through in the face of the staunch, not opposition, but indifference in society."

This quote emphasizes the challenge entrepreneurs face in gaining attention and traction for new products in a society that may initially be indifferent.

Excess and Self-Reliance

  • Land promotes the idea of doing things to excess if they are worth doing.
  • He exemplifies a generation of self-reliant scientists who were resourceful and independent.
  • Self-reliance is linked to the ability to solve problems without relying on others.

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

This quote reflects Land's philosophy that one should fully commit to their endeavors, pushing boundaries to achieve exceptional results.

Parallels Between Polaroid and Apple

  • Both Polaroid and Apple are recognized for their obsessive refinement and design of technologies.
  • Edwin Land and Steve Jobs are compared in terms of their public personas, innovation, and impact on human interaction.
  • The legacy of creating enduring companies and innovative products is a shared goal between Land and Jobs.

"The most obvious parallel to Polaroid is to Apple computer."

This quote draws a comparison between the two companies, highlighting similarities in their approach to product development and leadership.

The Importance of Vision and Innovation

  • Steve Jobs admired Land's ability to envision products and strive to create them with minimal compromise.
  • Jobs and Land shared a similar experience of conceptualizing perfect products and working tirelessly to realize them.
  • The intersection of humanities and sciences is seen as a crucial area for innovation.

"Each had imagined a perfect new product, whole, already manufactured and sitting before him, and then spent years prodding executives, engineers and factories to create it with as few compromises as possible."

This quote describes the visionary aspect of both Land and Jobs, focusing on their determination to bring their ideal products to life.

Polaroid's Investment in R&D and Control

  • Polaroid operated like a scientific think tank, with Land criticized for excessive R&D spending.
  • Land's philosophy was to pursue science that was both important and nearly impossible.
  • Control over one's work and company is seen as a significant motivator for entrepreneurs like Land.

"You're spending too much on R&D."

This quote reflects the tension between innovative pursuits and practical financial considerations, with Land favoring the former.

Land's Personal Motivations and Philosophy

  • Land's childhood experience shaped his desire for control and independence.
  • He encouraged his team to focus on mission-driven work, emphasizing the importance of their projects.
  • Land's advice on work involves dedication to a dream without distractions.

"As a child, Land had been forced to visit an aunt he disliked. As he sat in the backseat of his parents' car, he set his jaw and told himself, I will never let anyone tell me what to do ever again."

This quote offers insight into Land's personal motivation for control and autonomy, which influenced his approach to business and innovation.

Edwin Land's Personal Traits and Decision-Making Process

  • Edwin Land was known for his confidence in conversations and decision-making.
  • He could be demanding but was respected for his brilliance.
  • Land had a unique approach to contemplation and decision-making, often retreating into his own thoughts before making a choice.

"He just had a tremendously confident way of talking. You had to be patient. He was demanding, very demanding. But he was so brilliant that it was remarkable."

The quote highlights Land's confident and patient communication style, as well as his demanding nature balanced by his brilliance.

Edwin Land's Persuasiveness and Product Demonstration

  • Land was adept at explaining his work and persuading others.
  • He utilized visual demonstrations to showcase the effectiveness of his products, such as polarizing sunglasses.
  • Land's demonstration to American Optical executives involved using goldfish and glare to highlight the benefits of polarizing filters.

"Even the simple act of rotating one polarizer over another, whereupon two nearly clear sheets gradually turn black, had and still has the quality of small magic trick."

This quote describes how Land could turn a simple demonstration into a persuasive and almost magical experience, emphasizing his talent for effective product presentation.

Edwin Land's Ambition and Self-Confidence

  • Land had immense ambition, aiming to become the world's greatest novelist and scientist.
  • His confidence and ambition were evident even in his later years when reflecting on his younger goals.

"Two things. Lan replied crisply, I wanted to become the world's greatest novelist, and I wanted to become the world's greatest scientist."

The quote reflects Land's high level of ambition and self-confidence from a young age, indicating his drive to achieve greatness in multiple fields.

The Role of Co-founders in Company Success

  • The speaker reflects on the common advice to start a company with a co-founder for support.
  • However, they observe that many successful founders, such as Walt Disney, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, ultimately became the sole figurehead.
  • The advice to have a co-founder may be more relevant for the early stages of a company's growth.

"But then I thought about, let's just talk about the 40 or so founders that we've talked about so far in the podcast. How many of them have co-founders that stuck around?"

This quote raises the observation that despite common advice, many successful founders end up leading their companies alone, suggesting that the role of co-founders may vary across different stages of a company's development.

Transition from Co-founder to Sole Founder

  • Edwin Land transitioned from co-founder to the sole leader of Polaroid.
  • His co-founder, Willwright, became less relevant as Land took on multiple roles and drove innovation.
  • The company's name change from Land-Willwright Laboratories to Polaroid Corporation signifies Land's sole leadership.

"Land was a chairman, president, and director of research, plus the source of virtually every idea. Whereas Willwright was just vice president."

The quote explains the shift in the company's leadership, with Land assuming multiple critical roles and becoming the primary source of ideas, leading to his co-founder's diminished involvement.

The Founding Story of the Polaroid Camera

  • Land's invention of the Polaroid camera was inspired by his daughter's question about seeing pictures immediately.
  • His background in various fields enabled him to conceive the camera's unique instant photography process.
  • Land's story emphasizes the value of a lifelong love of learning and applying knowledge to innovation.

"Everything he'd learned in his previous work, about filters, about making tiny crystals and thin films, about optics, even about manufacturing and outsourcing, came into play."

This quote illustrates how Land's prior knowledge and experience across different subjects were instrumental in inventing the Polaroid camera, showcasing the importance of a broad learning base for innovation.

Polaroid's Impact on Photography and Product Demonstrations

  • The Polaroid camera revolutionized photography by allowing instant photo development.
  • Land's product demonstrations were powerful and convinced audiences of the camera's capabilities.
  • The success of the Polaroid camera was unforeseen, even by Land, who underestimated the sales potential.

"The leap to Polaroid was like replacing a messenger on horseback with your first telephone."

The quote compares the revolutionary impact of the Polaroid camera to a significant technological leap, highlighting the camera's transformative effect on the photography industry.

Monopoly Profits and Innovation

  • Polaroid's high profit margins from film sales allowed for significant investment in research and development.
  • Land's philosophy was to reinvest in innovation, even if it meant cannibalizing existing products.
  • The concept of "cargo cults" is used to illustrate the mistake of copying successful companies without understanding the underlying factors of their success.

"The profit margin on a package of film was something like 60%."

The quote emphasizes the financial success of Polaroid's film sales, which provided the financial leeway for extensive research and development, driving further innovation.

Edwin Land's Vision for Corporate Structure and Innovation

  • Land envisioned a future with many small corporations, each dedicated to research and innovation.
  • He believed in creating an environment where individuals felt fully participative and recognized.
  • Land's dream was for a corporate landscape that fostered individual contribution and societal progress.

"Each individual will be a member of a group small enough so that he feels a full participant in the purpose and activity of the group."

This quote captures Land's ideal of a corporate structure that values and empowers each individual, aligning with his broader vision for innovation and societal advancement.

Polaroid as a One-Man Company

  • Land's leadership style involved being at the top of every organizational chart.
  • He created an environment that encouraged deep thought and innovation.
  • Polaroid's success was heavily dependent on Land's direction and ideas.

"Polaroid is a one-man company."

The quote succinctly states the perception that Polaroid's success and direction were largely attributable to Edwin Land's singular vision and leadership, highlighting the impact of individual leadership on a company's trajectory.

Edwin Land's Work Ethic and Concentration

  • Land was known for his intense work ethic and constant probing at Polaroid.
  • He believed in the power of intense concentration to unlock hidden personal resources.
  • Land's approach to work influenced the culture at Polaroid, with employees sometimes hoping to avoid his late-night calls.

"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 emphasizes Land's belief in the transformative power of deep focus and concentration, which he considered essential to personal and professional development.

Polaroid's Marketing Strategy

  • Polaroid was positioned as an aspirational product, similar to Apple's marketing approach.
  • The product was marketed to highlight the instant and shared enjoyment of photography.
  • Land's marketing strategies emphasized the emotional and immediate aspects of Polaroid pictures.

"If you're not taking color pictures with a new Polaroid color pack camera, there's something left out of your life."

This quote from a Polaroid ad campaign illustrates the emotional appeal used in marketing to create a sense of missing out if one does not use their product.

Land's Inventiveness and Military Contributions

  • Land was known for inventing on demand, with numerous contributions during World War II.
  • He invented products such as variable darkness goggles and systems for pilots.
  • His ability to rapidly create solutions to problems was legendary within Polaroid and the military.

"No, but I'll have one by then."

Land's confident response to a general's inquiry about a solution showcases his ability to invent under pressure and his reputation for delivering results quickly.

Edwin Land and Politics

  • Land advised several presidents on technology, including the creation of the U-2 spy plane.
  • Despite not having formal degrees, he was referred to as Dr. Land, highlighting his respected status.
  • Land ended up on Richard Nixon's enemies list after quitting his advisory post during the Watergate scandal, which he found humorous.

"I'm very grateful. I appreciate it very much and I will talk to you next Monday."

This quote reflects Land's light-hearted attitude toward being on Nixon's enemies list, indicating a sense of honor rather than concern.

Edwin Land Predicts the Future

  • In 1970, Land envisioned a future where cameras would be used as frequently and effortlessly as pencils or eyeglasses.
  • His predictions closely resemble the modern smartphone, which Steve Jobs is credited for popularizing.

"A camera which you would use not on the occasion of parties only or of trips only, or of when your grandchildren came to see you, but a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses."

Land's foresight into the ubiquity and simplicity of future cameras underscores his visionary thinking and his influence on the development of personal technology.

Land's Vision for Camera Design

  • Land was a perfectionist who envisioned a self-contained, easy-to-use camera system.
  • He prioritized design simplicity, with the camera being portable and without unnecessary features.
  • Land's ideas from the 1940s to the 1970s consistently focused on user-friendly and elegant camera designs.

"You simply look through the viewfinder and compose your picture and push a button and out comes the finished drive photograph in full color."

This quote captures Land's goal for a camera that was straightforward and convenient, reinforcing his dedication to user-centered design.

Land's Perfectionism in Polaroid Products

  • Land demanded high-quality standards, such as the camera's ability to focus at various distances.
  • His insistence on purity in design sometimes exceeded practical needs but resulted in distinctive products.

"One should see one's subject as if just gazing at it seamlessly."

Land's philosophy for the camera's viewfinder was to create a natural and uninterrupted visual experience for the photographer, reflecting his pursuit of perfection and a seamless user experience.

Land's Romantic Utopianism

  • Land believed that if a product was right in all aspects, it would sell itself.
  • He viewed marketing as unnecessary for a superior product and was dismissive of focusing on the bottom line.

"Marketing is what you do if your product is no good."

This quote reflects Land's confidence in the intrinsic value of well-designed products and his belief that quality trumps marketing.

Disregard for Expense in Pursuit of Quality

  • Land and other innovators like Walt Disney prioritized product excellence over budget constraints.
  • Land's approach led to memorable but costly demonstrations, such as the tulip incident at the annual meeting.

"We are innovating. I'll let you know the cost when we are done."

This quote, though attributed to Walt Disney, aligns with Land's philosophy of focusing on innovation first and cost later, indicating a shared disregard for expense in the pursuit of quality.

Edwin Land vs. Steve Jobs

  • Land's attention to sleek design and quality was echoed in Steve Jobs' approach to Apple products.
  • Land's legal battle with Kodak over patent infringement mirrored Jobs' stance against Google over Android.

"Theirs evacuates, while ours ejaculates."

Land's colorful comparison of Kodak's and Polaroid's photo ejection processes highlights his attention to detail and his competitive spirit, similar to Jobs' approach to competition.

The Patent Trial and Legacy

  • Polaroid's patent trial against Kodak resulted in a landmark judgment, emphasizing the importance of protecting innovation.
  • Land's passion for his work and his inventions' integrity drove him to fiercely defend Polaroid's patents.

"The only thing keeping us alive is our brilliance. The only thing that keeps our brilliance alive is our patents."

This quote conveys Land's belief in the critical role of patents in safeguarding a company's innovations and survival.

Post-Retirement and the Innovator's Dilemma

  • After retirement, Land's successors struggled to replicate his level of innovation.
  • The company's shift from pioneering to replicating existing technology marked a departure from Land's principles.

"Don't do anything that someone else can do."

Land's motto encouraged originality and discouraged settling for incremental improvements, a philosophy that later Polaroid leaders did not fully embrace.

Contrast Between Land's and Booth's Leadership

  • Land's belief in introducing groundbreaking inventions contrasted with his successor Booth's more market-driven approach.
  • The shift in leadership philosophy reflected a fundamental change in Polaroid's direction.

"Whereas Land's Polaroid was built on his belief that every significant invention must come to a world that is not prepared for it, Booth's asked the world what it wanted and then made it."

This quote contrasts Land's visionary approach with Booth's more conventional market-responsive strategy, highlighting the different mindsets in leading innovation.

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