Land’s Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who Invented It
by Peter C. Wensberg
Houghton Mifflin, 258 pp., $18.95
This country has, at least until recently, been known for the sort of inventions that change the way people live. Edison’s invention of a usable electric light bulb is one obvious example, and the invention of the transistor in 1948 by the three Bell Labs physicists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley is another. To this list one could add the invention of Polaroid, the light absorbing material used in sunglasses and wherever else it is desirable to reduce glare, and the invention in 1943 of the idea of “instant” or “one-step” photography. Both of these were the creations of the American-born scientist-inventor Edwin H. Land, now seventy-eight years old. While Land’s Polaroid Corporation is well known to the general public, Land himself has been almost a complete enigma. He has never allowed anyone to interview him at length, never written an autobiography, and never participated in the writing of his biography by anyone else.
On this last matter I consider myself something of an expert. With the encouragement of various mutual friends, some of whom I took to be speaking for Land, I tried for nearly five years to arrange with Land to do a New Yorker profile of him. Since he notoriously does not answer letters, these negotiations, if that is what to call them, were carried on by emissaries, with the exception of an encounter on the evening of November 6, 1982. The Science Museum of Minnesota then celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary by inviting a small group to join it for the occasion, a group that included Land and myself.
This was my first meeting with Land, and I was immediately taken by what seemed to be his straightforwardness. I was determined not to bring up the subject of the profile, but he almost immediately pulled out his pocket diary to show me my address and telephone number entered in it and he indicated that my request had been much on his mind. In a moment of euphoria I remarked that writing about him would give me an opportunity to learn something about the history of photography, a subject of which I was ignorant. (I did not tell him that I had never owned a camera and knew next to nothing about how one worked.) He looked at me oddly and said, “Photography…photography…that is something I do for a living. My real interest is in color vision.”
I did not have the slightest idea of what to make of this remarkable statement. I did not realize that the previous August he had severed, under not very happy circumstances, his connections with the company he created, and had sold the 15 percent share of stock in Polaroid that he and his family owned. But my first, naive, thought was to compare his situation with those taxi drivers, bartenders, and elevator operators one encounters in New York who say that what they really do is act, sing, or conduct research in cosmology. Evidently color …