Edwin Land Biography

Physicist, Scientist, Inventor(1909–1991)
Edwin Land is best known as the inventor of the Polaroid camera and film, and as the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation.


Scientist and inventor Edwin Land was born on May 7, 1909, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Land attended Harvard University briefly before establishing his own laboratory to study light polarization. The lab became the Polaroid Corporation in 1937, and publicly introduced its groundbreaking instant camera and self-developing film in 1947. Land died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on March 1, 1991.

Early Life

Edwin Herbert Land was born on May 7, 1909, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He attended Harvard University for a year, studying chemistry, before dropping out and moving to New York City. In New York, Land worked on scientific experiments independently. During the day, he conducted research at the New York Public Library. After hours, he used a Columbia University laboratory. The result of these activities was the development of what he called a Polaroid J sheet, which was a groundbreaking advance in polarizing light technology.


Land returned to Harvard in time, focusing on chemistry and physics. With one of his professors, he founded the Land-Wheelright Laboratories to continue his polarization studies. The company was renamed the Polaroid Corporation in 1937.

The technology that Land developed had a wide range of applications, and was used in the production of sunglasses and color animation. During World War II, Land and his team applied themselves to the refinement of night-vision goggles and a viewing system called the Vectograph, which revealed enemy camouflage. After the war, the team contributed to the development of the U-2 spy plane. Employees described Land as driven and intensely committed to his work, spending long hours in the lab.

In 1943 in Santa Fe, Land was asked by his 3-year-old daughter why the camera that they used couldn't produce a photo immediately. He mulled the question over and was inspired to invent such a device. Then in 1947, Land publicly demonstrated an instant camera, called the Polaroid Land Camera, with film. The cameras were soon an instant success, selling out during the Christmas season in 1948, and would remain on the market for 50 years thereafter. A color-photo version of the product was released in 1963.

As a manager, Land was known for his progressive policies. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Land hired women and minorities for research and management positions, rather than secretarial and custodial roles. In the 1960s, he hired minorities ahead of many other firms, embracing early affirmative-action programs.

In the 1970s, Polaroid pioneered color instant film. In 1977, despite Land's business prowess, the company was unable to make a success of a film venture called Polavision. The company sustained a significant loss on the Polavision effort. As a result, Land chose to resign his position as chairman in the early 1980s.

Later Life

In the midst of establishing his company, Land neglected to complete his studies at Harvard University. Harvard awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1957 for his lifetime of scientific achievement. Land, who had also made important findings about color perception and sight, held hundreds of patents over the course of his career and later founded the Rowland Institute for Science.

Land collected photographs when not conducting his own original research. He acquired many pieces via trade, bartering cameras to photographers in exchange for their work. At its height, his collection included nearly 25,000 images by various artists, including Ansel Adams, Robert Frank and Andy Warhol. The collection was divided up and sold in lots following Land's death.

Edwin Land died on March 1, 1991, at the age of 81, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Helen Terre Maislen, whom he married in 1929, and their two daughters, Jennifer and Valerie.

Following his death, Land's assistant destroyed his papers, leaving gaps in both the historical record of Land's life and the development of the Polaroid Corporation.

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