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Land, Edwin - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Edwin Land, Social and Economic Impact

harvard polaroid research light

Polaroid Corporation


Edwin Land was the inventor of the Polaroid/Land camera, an invention that developed pictures a few minutes after they were taken. A major scientist and inventor of the twentieth century, he patented over 533 inventions, most of them related to Polaroid optics, such as glare-free sunglasses, and a form of three-dimensional photography used by the military. He was also known for his speed in developing inventions and creating solutions to problems on demand. In fact, the Polaroid Corporation flourished largely because Land and his associates loved to solve problems.

Personal Life

Edwin Herbert Land was born on May 7, 1909, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the only child of Harry and Martha F. Land. Edwin’s father operated a scrap metal salvaging business and Land grew up in comfortable financial and social circumstances, idolizing Michael Faraday, and English scientist, and dreaming of becoming an inventor. He met and married Helen Maislen in 1929. In 1940 Jennifer, their only child, was born. The Land’s loved their daughter deeply, and they spent much time together, especially traveling around America.

Land left Harvard in 1927. He frequently resided in New York and was deeply occupied with his personal research on light and optics. His parents provided him with an allowance so he could pay his bills while pursuing research. He returned to Harvard to work on his degree in 1929, where his research was already well known to others. He was granted permission to use a laboratory to conduct his research and tried to improve the techniques of polarizing light.

Passionately devoted to the use of science to bring about technological inventions for mankind, Land was awarded many honors. During the later period in his life, he received virtually every science prize one could achieve and obtained at least six honorary doctorate degrees from notable universities, including Yale, Tufts, Columbia University, Loyola, and Washington University. He was also awarded a doctorate degree from his alma mater, Harvard, from which he dropped out of as an undergraduate. In 1963, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1977, he was made a member of the Inventor’s Hall of Fame by the American Patent office.

Land became a visiting professor and a fellow at MIT’s School for Advanced Study. He also became a member of Harvard’s visiting committees for astronomy, chemistry, and physics. Land retired, in August of 1982, to devote more of his time to the many projects for disadvantaged children that he had started in the 1960s and to the Rowland Institute for Science. Land died on March 1, 1991.

Career Details

In 1926 while walking down Broadway in New York City, New York, Land was overwhelmed by the glare coming from a passing automobile’s headlight. Perceiving that bright lights might pose a safety hazard, Land began to channel his interests into the area of optics, particularly the field of “polarization.” Polarization is the breaking up of light into its separate components to get useful results, such as reducing the hazards caused by glaring lights. A very intelligent young man, he was able to enter Harvard University at age seventeen, in 1926.

In 1828 a prism was invented that polarized light for use in optical instruments. These prisms became very expensive and most ongoing research had concentrated on developing even larger and more effective prisms for polarizing light. Land decided instead to use multiple smaller prisms packed tightly together to create the same effect as a single large prism. His technique, forcing the plastic containing the artificial crystals through small holes, ensured that they would be aligned in the proper direction for the polarizing of light. He presented his finding in a paper at Harvard in February of 1932.

Later in 1932, short one semester from graduating, Land abruptly quit school to open his own consulting commercial laboratory along with George W. Wheel-wright III, a physics professor at Harvard and one of Land’s former teachers. In 1937 Land founded the Polaroid Corporation, which soon became the leading establishment in the field of optical instruments.

His ability as an inventor was matched by his ability as a businessman. He licensed his method of polarizing light to the American Optical Company for sunglasses with polarized lenses, to the Eastman Kodak Company for camera filters, and to Bausch and Lomb Company for optical instruments. Land’s scientific inventions made his company a fortune, and with this money he began to purchase competing patents for his company.

At the New York World Fair in 1939, Land attempted to prove to American auto manufacturers the advantages of polarized headlights. While renting space in the Chrysler booth, Land showed audiences a twelve-minute film demonstrating the advantages of polarized headlights. Although over 150,000 would see the film, auto manufacturers never bought Land’s system. Land would enjoy better luck with his Polaroid Day Glasses and a contract to install polarized windows on Union Pacific’s Copper King railcars. Following these successes, Land moved his company and its 240 employees from its first home in Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in early 1940.

During World War II, Land was involved through the Defense Research Committee in supplying the government with many polarized kinds of equipment, including goggles and a three-dimensional photography system to enhance reconnaissance efforts. Land also helped to develop elements of guided missile systems for rockets. Two employees of his organization, Robert Woodward and William Doering, developed synthetic quinine, the only cure for malaria, and synthetic cortisone. Both were useful in the war effort, and these two men received a Nobel Prize in 1965 for their creation of the synthetic cortisone.

In 1947 Land developed what would be his landmark invention. After years of work, on February 21 1947, he demonstrated his Polaroid/Land camera at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. The world could now take pictures and see the results within minutes. This instant camera also linked aperture size with the camera’s shutter speed, taking much of the guesswork out of photography. It was an instant success with the consumer and large orders for these cameras began to roll into Polaroid.

For this and other inventions, Land was awarded the coveted Holley Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1949. In the same year, he developed a new optical system that enabled scientists at the Sloan-Kettering Institute to observe living human cells in their natural color. Land also began working with the military to develop new ways to prevent another surprise attack similar to the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Chronology: Edwin Land

1909: Born.

1926: Attends Harvard University.

1927: Pursues independent research on polarization rather than return to Harvard for his sophomore year.

1929: Returns to Harvard and begins patent process for his polarizing material.

1932: Leaves Harvard to found Land-Wheelbright Laboratories.

1937: Forms Polaroid Corporation.

1947: Develops the instant camera.

1977: Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

1982: Retires.

1991: Dies.

Social and Economic Impact

In the 1960s, Land began work in disadvantaged poor African American communities along the east coast. He also founded the Rowland Institute for Science and provided considerable donations to universities to be directed toward scientific research and the development of scientists. These donations were almost always made anonymously and two of his favorite institutions for these monetary gifts were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. Land is remembered not only for his philanthropic donations but also for the inventions that have shaped the world and the way we see it.

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