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Edwin H. Land

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Edwin H. Land
Land presenting the Polavision home movie system, 1977
Edwin Herbert Land

May 7, 1909
DiedMarch 1, 1991(1991-03-01) (aged 81)
Other namesDr. Land, Din (close friends)
Known for
SpouseHelen "Terre" Maislen (m. 1929; 2 children)
Scientific career
FieldsOptics, polarization, color vision

Edwin Herbert Land, ForMemRS,[2] FRPS, Hon.MRI (May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991) was an American scientist and inventor,[4] best known as the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation. He invented inexpensive filters for polarizing light, a practical system of in-camera instant photography, and the retinex theory of color vision, among other things. His Polaroid instant camera went on sale in late 1948 and made it possible for a picture to be taken and developed in 60 seconds or less.

Life and career[edit]

Edwin Land was born to Jewish parents in[5] Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Matie[a] (née Goldfaden) and Harry Land, a Russian scrap-metal dealer.[6][7][8] Growing up, he was known to take apart household appliances, such as a mantel clock and the family's new gramophone, as well as blowing all the house's fuses when he was six years old.[7]: 14  He was scolded by his father when taking apart a phonograph and he vowed that "nothing or nobody could stop me from carrying through the execution of an experiment" [9] He had an elder sister named Helen who had a difficult time pronouncing Edwin's name, so she called him "Din" a nickname that stuck throughout the rest of his childhood and was used among his closest friends.[10]

Land attended the Norwich Free Academy at Norwich, Connecticut, a semi-private high school, and graduated in the class of 1927 with honors. The library there was posthumously named for him, having been funded by grants from his family.

He studied physics at Harvard University, more specifically, optics, but left after his freshman year, moving to New York City. There he invented the first inexpensive filters capable of polarizing light, which he called Polaroid film. He was not associated with an educational institution and lacked the tools of a proper laboratory, making this a difficult endeavor, so he would sneak into a laboratory at Columbia University late at night to use their equipment.[6]: 75  He also availed himself of the New York Public Library to scour the scientific literature for prior work on polarizing substances. His breakthrough came when he realized that, instead of attempting to grow a large single crystal of a polarizing substance, he could manufacture a film with millions of micron-sized polarizing crystals that were coaxed into perfect alignment with each other.[citation needed]

Land returned to Harvard University after developing the polarizing film, but he did not finish his studies or receive a degree.[11] Despite not receiving a college degree, he was still referred to from many as Dr. Land especially when he set up visiting posts to Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to biographer Peter Wensberg, once Land could see the solution to a problem in his head, he lost all motivation to write it down or prove his vision to others.[12] Often his wife, Terre, would extract from him the answers to homework problems, at the prodding of his instructor. She would then write up the homework and hand it in so that he could receive credit and not fail the course.


In 1932, he established the Land-Wheelwright Laboratories together with his Harvard physics professor, George Wheelwright III, to commercialize his polarizing technology. Wheelwright came from a family of financial means and agreed to fund the company. After a few early successes developing polarizing filters for sunglasses and photographic filters, Land obtained funding from a series of Wall Street investors for further expansion.[6]: 69 

The company was renamed the Polaroid Corporation in 1937.[13][10]

Land further developed and produced the sheet polarizers under the Polaroid trademark. Although the initial major application was for sunglasses and scientific work, it quickly found many additional applications: for color animation in the Wurlitzer 850 Peacock jukebox of 1942, for glasses in full-color stereoscopic (3-D) movies, to control brightness of light through a window, a necessary component of all LCDs, and many more.

During World War II, he worked on military tasks, which included developing dark-adaptation goggles, target finders, the first passively guided smart bombs, and a special stereoscopic viewing system called the Vectograph, co-invented with Czech refugee Joseph Mahler, which revealed camouflaged enemy positions in aerial photography. With all this, he was also a consultant to the National Research Defense Committee which focused its efforts on non-governmental scientific research.[10]

On a vacation to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his three-year-old eldest daughter, Jennifer, he took a picture of her. After she asked why she could not see the picture her father just took of her, within an hour he already had the idea for an instant film camera. His patent attorney, Donald Brown, was also there at the time visiting Santa Fe and he quickly approached him with this idea and Brown agreed on the idea.[14] After this trip, research for the development of this idea began immediately.

A little more than three years later, on February 21, 1947, Land demonstrated an instant camera and associated film to the Optical Society of America.[15] Called the Land Camera, it was in commercial sale less than two years later. Polaroid originally manufactured sixty units of this first camera. Fifty-seven were put up for sale at the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston before the 1948 Christmas holiday. Polaroid marketers incorrectly guessed that the camera and film would remain in stock long enough to manufacture a second run based on customer demand. All fifty-seven cameras and all of the film were sold on the first day of demonstrations.

During his time at Polaroid, Land was notorious for his marathon research sessions. When Land conceived of an idea, he would experiment and brainstorm until the problem was solved with no breaks of any kind. He needed to have food brought to him and to be reminded to eat.[12] He once wore the same clothes for eighteen consecutive days while solving problems with the commercial production of polarizing film.[12] As the Polaroid company grew, Land had teams of assistants working in shifts at his side. As one team wore out, the next team was brought in to continue the work.

Elkan Blout, a close colleague of Edwin Land at Polaroid, wrote: "What was Land like? Knowing him was a unique experience. He was a true visionary; he saw things differently from other people, which is what led him to the idea of instant photography. He was a brilliant, driven man who did not spare himself and who enjoyed working with equally driven people."[16]

Contributions to photo intelligence[edit]

Beginning in the early years of the Cold War, Land played a major role in the development of photographic reconnaissance and intelligence gathering efforts. Projects included the Genetrix balloon borne cameras, the U-2 program, Corona and Samos photographic satellites, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. He was a frequent advisor to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on photographic reconnaissance matters.[17]

Later years[edit]

In the 1950s, James G. Baker, Land, and his team helped design the optics of the revolutionary Lockheed U-2 spy plane. He also contributed to the design of the plane with Kelly Johnson.[18] Also in this decade, Land first discovered a two-color system for projecting the entire spectrum of hues with only two colors of projecting light (he later found more specifically that one could achieve the same effect using very narrow bands of 579 nm and 599 nm light).[19] Some of this work was later incorporated in his Retinex theory of color vision.

In 1957, Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate, and Edwin H. Land Blvd., a street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was later named in his memory. The street is at one end of Memorial Drive, in Cambridge, where the Polaroid company headquarters building was located (over a mile west on Memorial Drive from Land Blvd.). Polaroid occupied several buildings in various places in Cambridge.

In the early 1970s, Land attempted to explain the previously known phenomenon of color constancy with his retinex theory. His popular demonstrations of color constancy raised much interest in the concept. He considered his leadership towards the development of integral instant color photography – the SX-70 film and camera – to be his crowning achievement.

Although he led the Polaroid Corporation as a chief executive, Land was a scientist first and foremost, and as such made sure that he performed "an experiment each day". Despite holding no formal degree, employees, friends, and the press respected his scientific accomplishments by calling him Dr. Land. The only exception was The Wall Street Journal, which refused to use that honorific title throughout his lifetime.[12]

Land often made technical and management decisions based on what he felt was right as both a scientist and a humanist, much to the chagrin of Wall Street and his investors. From the beginning of his professional career, he hired women and trained them to be research scientists. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he led Polaroid to the forefront of the affirmative action movement.[citation needed]

He had an artistic vision. In his laboratory, he built giant studio cameras the size of bedroom closets that produced large format (20 x 24 inch) prints. He gave photographers free access to these cameras in return for some of the prints they produced.[20] This practice was continued by the company; the result was the Polaroid Collection. Compiled since the 1970s, the collection grew to between 16,000 and 24,000 photos shot by some of the world's greatest artists and photographers, including Ansel Adams, Chuck Close, Robert Frank and Andy Warhol. The collection, an asset of the Polaroid Corporation, remained intact until 2010 when, in controversial circumstances, it was broken up and put up for sale in lots.[21]

Land resigned from his role as Presidential Advisor during Nixon's Watergate scandal in 1973. He was one of the names in Nixon's "political opponents" (following the original top 20 enemies)[22]

Despite the tremendous success of his instant cameras, Land's Polavision instant movie system was a financial disaster,[23] and he resigned as Chairman of Polaroid on July 27, 1982.[24] When he retired, he had 535 patents to his name, only surpassed by Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson. While he was set for retirement years, this did not mean the end of his passion in research and decided to continue with his interest in color vision.[25] From 1978, he was a regular visitor to the laboratory of Semir Zeki at University College London, to attend Zeki's experiments on color vision. Although they never published together, Land was to design the gelatin filters to accompany the paper on the physiology of color vision published by Zeki in Nature in 1980.[26] These filters, and especially the long-wave one, were later used to study details of the structure of DNA. Before Land died, Zeki negotiated with the Royal Society to take a page of the Royal Society Fellows Book for Land to sign in the United States, since he was too ill to attend the signing ceremony in London. It was signed at a small private ceremony in Land's home in Cambridge, Mass., attended by his son-in-law; the citations were read by Zeki and Hugh Huxley admitted Land formally to the Society. The other Foreign Member of the Royal Society who also signed the book on the same occasion was Ed Purcell, the discoverer of nuclear magnetic resonance and a friend of Edwin Land. It is reputed that the only other times that the book (or in this case a page of it) of the Royal Society was taken outside its house in London was when it was signed by Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill, both in their homes in London. In his later years, Land founded the Rowland Institute for Science where he found a vacant lot besides Charles River at Kendall Square.[25]


Land died on March 1, 1991, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 81.[27] Land's family, his wife, Helen, and two daughters, Jennifer and Valerie declined to disclose the cause of his death.[27] Land himself disliked being written about, wanting to leave behind a legacy of published scientific work, rather than a cult of personality, and so, on his death, Land's family had a laboratory associate shred his personal papers and notes, a task that would take three years to complete.[7]: 150 [6]: 7 

He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[6]: 467 

Public service[edit]

Land was:[28]



  • Land, E. H.; Daw, N. W. (1962). "Binocular Combination of Projected Images". Science. 138 (3540): 589–590. Bibcode:1962Sci...138..589L. doi:10.1126/science.138.3540.589. PMID 17832004. S2CID 26080709.


  1. ^ She is referred to as Matie by McElheny, but Bonanos notes that various sources refer to her as Matha, Matie and Martha.


  1. ^ "SCI Perkin Medal". Science History Institute. 2016-05-31. Retrieved 24 March 2018.
  2. ^ a b Campbell, Fergus William (1994). "Edwin Herbert Land. 7 May 1909-1 March 1991". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 40: 196–219. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1994.0035.
  3. ^ Land, E. H.; Hunt, W. A. (1936). "The Use of Polarized Light in the Simultaneous Comparison of Retinally and Cortically Fused Colors". Science. 83 (2152): 309. Bibcode:1936Sci....83..309L. doi:10.1126/science.83.2152.309. PMID 17749392.
  4. ^ Berg, Howard C. (April 1992). "Obituary: Edwin H. Land". Physics Today. 45 (4): 106–108. Bibcode:1992PhT....45d.106B. doi:10.1063/1.2809638.
  5. ^ Fierstein, Ronald K., A triumph of genius : Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War, ISBN 978-1-4945-7947-0, OCLC 904140722, retrieved 2020-10-03
  6. ^ a b c d e f McElheny, Victor K. (1998). Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land. Basic Books. ISBN 9780738200095.
  7. ^ a b c Bonanos, Christopher (2012). Instant: The Story of Polaroid. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 978-1-61689-158-9. OCLC 819546343.
  8. ^ "Edwin Land – Entrepreneur's Hall of Fame". Ltbn.com. Retrieved 2013-08-24.
  9. ^ "Polaroid | Harvard Business School: Invention of the Polarizer". www.library.hbs.edu. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  10. ^ a b c McElheny, Victor. "Edwin Herbert Land" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2014-10-06.
  11. ^ Mervis, Stanley H. "Memorial Tributes." National Academy of Engineering 7. National Academies Press, 1947: p. 129. ISBN 978-0-309-05146-0 doi:10.17226/4779
  12. ^ a b c d e Wensberg, Peter C. (September 1987). Land's Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who Invented It. Houghton Mifflin (T). p. 258. ISBN 978-0-395-42114-7.
  13. ^ "History of Polaroid and Edwin Land".
  14. ^ "Polaroid | Harvard Business School: Invention of the Polarizer". www.library.hbs.edu. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  15. ^ Land, Edwin H. (1977). "The retinex theory of color vision". Sci. Am. 237 (6): 108–128. Bibcode:1977SciAm.237f.108L. CiteSeerX doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1277-108. PMID 929159.
  16. ^ Blout, E.R., 1996. "Polaroid: Dreams to Reality" in The Power of Boldness, ed. by E.R. Blout, Joseph Henry Press, pp. 60–75.
  17. ^ Brugioni, Dino A. (2010). Eyes in the Sky: Eisenhower, the CIA and Cold War Aerial Espionage. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-082-5.
  18. ^ WWII and Cold War.
  19. ^ Land, Edwin (May 1959). "Experiments in Color Vision" (PDF). Scientific American. 200 (5): 286–298. Bibcode:1959SciAm.200e..84L. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0559-84. PMID 13646648.
  20. ^ "Enduring power of the Polaroid". BBC News. June 22, 2010.
  21. ^ "Instant headache for Polaroid shooters". Bjp-online.com (British Journal of Photography). Archived from the original on 2012-11-06. Retrieved 2013-08-24.
  22. ^ Political Views.
  23. ^ Giambarba, Paul (2004-09-01)"The Last Hurrah – Polavision, 1977", "The Branding of Polaroid 1957–1977". Retrieved 2006-12-01
  24. ^ Blumstein, Michael (1982-07-28)"Era Ends as Land Leaves Polaroid", The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-06.
  25. ^ a b Retirement.
  26. ^ Zeki, S. (1980). "The representation of colours in the cerebral cortex". Nature. 284 (5755): 412–418. Bibcode:1980Natur.284..412Z. doi:10.1038/284412a0. PMID 6767195. S2CID 4310049.
  27. ^ a b Pace, Eric (2 March 1991). "Edwin H. Land Is Dead at 81; Inventor of Polaroid Camera". The New York Times.
  28. ^ Garwin, Richard L., "Edwin H. Land: Science, and Public Policy", The Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, 1993
  29. ^ "Hood Medal". rps.org. The Royal Photographic Society. Archived from the original on 17 October 2014. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
  30. ^ "Edwin Herbert Land". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 2022-12-19.
  31. ^ Brody, Seymour (12 December 2008). "American Jewish Inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame". fau.edu/. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
  32. ^ "Edwin H. Land". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved 2022-12-19.
  33. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2022-12-19.
  34. ^ "The Cultural Award of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie (DGPh)". Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie e.V.. Accessed 7 March 2017.
  35. ^ "Edwin Land and Instant Photography – American Chemical Society". Retrieved 2015-08-19.


  • Earls, Alan R. and Rohani, Nasrin (2005), Polaroid Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S.C., ISBN 0-7385-3699-7
  • Wensberg, P. C. (1987) Land's Polaroid: a company and the man who invented it Houghton Mifflin, New York, ISBN 0-395-42114-4
  • McElheny, Victor K. (1999) Edwin Herbert Land: May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991 National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., ISBN 0-309-06644-1

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


  • US2,435,720Apparatus for exposing and processing photographic film