Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 536:
POLAROID AND LAND

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 536.

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 directions.

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 the pictures?"

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 direction.

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 invention.

He reminds us that invention is a passion. It lies too near the human heart to be done with any kind of circumspection.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Pace, E., Inventor of Instant Camera, Edwin H. Land, dies at 81. New York Times, OBITUARIES, Saturday, March 2, 1991.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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