Land’s Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who Invented It
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 vision, about which I also knew next to nothing, would have to be an important part of the profile. However, I never again heard from Land and my letters to him were never answered.
I mention all of this only to explain how surprising it is to find that there now is a biography of sorts of Land, Land’s Polaroid by Peter C. Wensberg. Mr. Wensberg spent twenty-four years at Polaroid, which he left two months after Land did. His work was largely in advertising and marketing, and when he left Polaroid he was the senior vice-president in charge of marketing. He was the third most important officer in the company after Land and William McCune, the president of Polaroid. As Wensberg makes clear in the prologue, and as Land has said publicly, Land had nothing to do with the book.
Wensberg is candid about his limitations:
Edwin H. Land deserves and requires a scientific biography. His career in science has been a long one, including some achievements that will last well beyond the products of his company. I am not that author and this is not that book.
What then is it?
This is a portrait of a man and a company who occupied the same space, and often, but not always, spoke with the same voice. If it is an admiring portrait, I do not apologize.
To write an admiring portrait of someone one admires—I have done it often—hardly needs an apology, providing one does in fact write a portrait. The trouble with his book is not that it is admiring but that it is not a portrait. The fault seems to be both with Wensberg and with Land. Wensberg was associated with Land for a quarter of a century but does not seem to have a clue about him.
Land is obsessively private, as he has every right to be, but how can anyone claim to have written a “portrait” of him when the first seventeen years of his life—including his family background—are compressed into a single paragraph? We do not even learn if Land had any brothers or sisters. Time magazine’s 1972 cover story about Land contains more information about his early years. The Time reporter had the enterprise to ask Land’s high-school physics teacher what he had been like as a student. The teacher, Raymond Case, reported that in his senior year Land “was already working at a level where I couldn’t help him.”
Wensberg also spends pages on useless digression. There is an entire chapter, for example, on the U-2 spy plane. The only connection I could find to Land was that he was, along with several other prominent scientists, a member of the President’s science advisory committee under Eisenhower, which advised Eisenhower to authorize the spy missions. This Wensberg briefly tells us, after pages of commentary on the plane itself. Wensberg also describes people he neither saw nor heard looking “glumly” at their wristwatches or raising their voices “above the tumult.” Reading these misguided attempts to add verisimilitude to otherwise plausible scenes, one remembers that Wensberg made his career in advertising.
An adequate study of Land would have to include at least three elements. Two of them, the founding of the Polaroid company and the invention of what Land referred to as “one-step” photography, are treated somewhat perfunctorily in Wensberg’s book. The third, his theory of color vision, is not mentioned at all. Yet even a cursory account should make it clear that Land is one of the pivotal figures in creating our technological society; someone whom one might compare to Thomas Edison and certainly to George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak camera.
Land was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1909, and entered Harvard in 1926, at the age of seventeen. One cannot get, either from Wensberg’s book or from anything else that I have read, a clear idea of what he was like at seventeen, except that he must have been an unconventional young man. If the various accounts I have heard are to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt them, by his first year in college he had acquired a very specific vocation. The precise circumstances of how this happened are, at least to me, vague, and Wensberg’s book is, alas, only marginally helpful. On a visit to New York while a freshman at Harvard, Land—so the legend, which may even be true, tells us—had a vision. He was walking in Time Square and was troubled by the glare of all the lights, especially the lights of the automobiles and buses. He decided to do something about it—to invent a way of controlling glare.
Given his precocious interest in physics he must have known about the use of polarizers of light to reduce the amount of light transmitted through certain optical media; this is something one would find in a freshman physics text. The study of how wave motions are polarized certainly goes back to the beginnings of the study of wave motion itself. We can imagine the creation of a wave by jiggling a jump rope up and down. When a wave is propagated, the direction of the vibration of the wave is not necessarily the same as the direction of propagation. For sound waves it is, and for light waves it isn’t. In fact for light waves the oscillations of the wave take place at right angles to the direction of propagation, something that physicists refer to as transverse wave propagation. (Sound waves are called longitudinal.) A normal light source produces light with a random mixture of different polarization directions. Our eyes are not sensitive to these different directions of polarization and they absorb light with equal ease whatever its polarization. But some materials are sensitive to it. Crystalline materials such as calcite, for example, absorb light selectively when the direction of its polarization lines up with some axis in the crystal. These materials filter out different directions of polarization, letting through, ideally, only that part of the light beam that has its polarizations lined up just right.
The use of such materials to cut down the transmission of light had been known since the early nineteenth century. Indeed, in 1808, a French physicist named Etienne-Louis Malus discovered that if two such polarizers are put back to back, the amount of light transmitted by the combined system depends on how the polarizers are positioned with respect to each other. In theory the second polarizer, to take an extreme example, would not transmit any light from the first if its axis were at right angles to that of the first. The first substance “polarizes” the light (in Malus’s term) while the second analyzes it. This is the general principle for using polarizers to reduce the transmission of light. But no one had succeeded in making such a material artificially and no one before Land had given much thought to what one would do with such a material if one had it.
I admit that some of Land’s vision in Times Square sounds like a publicist’s dream; perhaps one day Land will tell us if it is true. In any event, Land quit Harvard and moved to New York, at age eighteen, to a basement apartment on West 55th Street, where, apparently supported by his parents, he lived for the next three years and worked on polarization. Why he needed to be in New York as opposed to Cambridge to carry out this work is not clear. Wensberg mentions that the New York Public Library had more books than the Widener Library, but this seems a little hollow as an explanation. In any event Land, it appears, spent his days in the library reading the works of such scientists as the nineteenth-century British chemist William Herapath, who had, in fact, made small artificial crystals that polarized light. Land also found a way to sneak into the Columbia physics laboratories at night, sometimes in the company of his future wife. He also had enough money to hire a technician, Ernest Calabro, who remained with him for the next twenty-five years.