Today, we meet a great 20th-century inventor. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1957 I ran a lab
experiment for students at Berkeley. We measured
stress distributions in loaded plates made from
clear plastic. We shone polarized light through the
plate. The rays continued through another sheet of
unstressed Polaroid plastic.
The result was a sort of Rorschach picture in
colored bands. The bands made a contour map of
stresses in the plate. They gave us a short cut
around some terrible mathematics.
That was just one of a hundred uses for Polaroid
plastics. The Polaroids are light filters.
Normally, light coming at you vibrates in two
directions -- say left-right and up-down. The
Polaroids remove light that vibrates in one of the
We knew about polarization 180 years ago. Then
around 1930 several things happened. A woman named
Helen Maislen studied physics at Smith College. Her
professor there coined the term Polaroid. Soon she
married Edwin Land, a young physics student who'd
been turned on by courses at Norwich College.
Land went on to Harvard. But he got so engrossed
with polarization that he dropped out.
In 1937 Land formed a company to produce a new
polarizing plastic. Of course he named it Polaroid.
By 1943 he was a 34-year-old business wunderkind --
now on vacation in Santa Fe. When he took snapshots
of his family, his three-year-old daughter
complained, "Why do we have to wait so long to see
Why indeed! That afternoon Land walked through the
old town chewing on the question. We shouldn't have
to wait. During that walk, he invented the Polaroid
Camera in his head.
The camera was based on a new film that developed
and printed immediately. At first Land got sepia
images. By 1950 he had a black-and-white system.
He'd invented a color Polaroid camera by 1959, and
it was on the market in 1963. Of course, these
Polaroid cameras had nothing to do with polarized
light. Land had gone off in an entirely new
By the late '60s, half the households in America
had Polaroid cameras of one sort or another. When
Land retired in 1982 he was a 73-year-old
billionaire with 533 patents to his name.
Land was a reticent and driven man. Once he said,
"Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess."
That upsets our ideas about moderation and balance.
Yet it also recalls an old Biblical idea: "Because
you are lukewarm -- neither hot nor cold -- I will
spew you from my mouth." Well, there was nothing
lukewarm about the way Land threw himself at
He reminds us that invention is a passion. It lies
too near the human heart to be done with any kind
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds