Edwin Land’s self developing film

polaroid-land-95

Today marks the day 65 years ago that Edwin Land received his patent for self developing film. I sort of came across this fact by accident. Like almost everything about him, I wasn’t looking for it and it wouldn’t normally have popped up during the course of the day. Fact is though, as soon as I saw it I knew enough to pay attention.

Edwin Land was a funny kind of hero to me for many years.  I never really connected him to his cameras, or to his film.¹ For the most part, I was unaware of his quiet contributions but it didn’t stop me from regularly tripping over his name associated with something I was doing. As a person, he never ‘burst onto the scene’ and always seemed to remain just a little out of sight. But his timely contributions managed to shape a generation and his iconic inventions still influence our day-to-day life.

Land was a scientist and innovator capable of putting many of our current superstars to shame.  I mean, here’s a guy who left after a freshman year of studying chemistry at Harvard to invent a film that contained millions of micron-sized polarizing crystals that all lined up with each other and were capable of filtering light. In order to do this he used the New York City Public Library to do his research and snuck into the laboratories of Columbia University at night to do his work.

He returned to Harvard but never finished his degree because he didn’t need one. Once he figured out a solution to a problem in his head, he just went ahead and solved it. He had little interest in writing it down, and even less in trying to prove himself to others.

Together with his Harvard physics professor he started a company to produce his polarizing film. Designed for optics and scientific work they managed to get it to work on sunglasses and camera lenses and this brought in enough money to start his Polaroid Corporation in 1937.

He went on to make the first full-colour 3D glasses, the brightness control necessary for all LCD’s, target finders, dark adapting goggles, the first passively guided smart bomb, and a stereoscopic system that could reveal camouflaged positions in aerial photographs. His team developed the optics on the U-2 spy plane, and the ability to project the entire spectrum with only 2 colours of light. But most importantly, on February 21st 1947 he demonstrated the first instant camera and film to the Optical Society of America. The Polaroid 95

polaroid-land-95-top

 

Despite the fact that he never obtained any type of formal degree, his commitment to science had him perform at least one experiment every day and earned him enough respect to be called Dr. Land by his friends, employees and the press. The Wall Street Journal being the only known exception, adamantly refusing to attach the Dr. before his name.

Wall street in general took a dim view of him. They and his investors disliked the fact that he made his decisions based on what he felt was right both as a scientist and a humanist. He consistently hired women and trained them as research scientists and put himself and his company at the front of the affirmative action movement after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

When he died at the age of 81, his personal notes and papers were shredded by an assistant.

We’ve fast forgotten how physical the world of photography was for most of its existence. The glass plates, flash pans, massive tripods, stools, boxes and giant cameras. The problem of trapping light in a black box and getting it to physically stick to a surface was something more than alchemy, and that Dr. Land could permanently stabilize it in dye was more than remarkable.

There had been instant film for cameras since he introduced it in 1947. But it was still physical and messy. And in the 10 seconds that passed when Edwin Land pulled a folded camera out of his pocket and took 5 ‘instant’ photos at the annual meeting of his company in April 1972, this would change forever.

Congratulations and Happy Birthday to all, for none of this would be possible without the original patent for self developing film.

¹The whole story of his life is worth the read from the following link from which I have drawn a fair bit of information  →  Edwin Land

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