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Tim Mahoney, manuscripts librarian at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library, looked over transparencies from a late 1960s presentation of Polaroid products. The school recently took possession of decades of the company’s documents.
Tim Mahoney, manuscripts librarian at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library, looked over transparencies from a late 1960s presentation of Polaroid products. The school recently took possession of decades of the company’s documents. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)

Polaroid preserved

Harvard catalogs an era of innovation

It was two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. US science chief Vannevar Bush dashed off a note to Polaroid Corp. founder Edwin H. Land . In the Dec. 24, 1941, missive, Bush assured Land that Polaroid's pioneering work on products like aviator goggles and aerial reconnaissance technology was ``a definite part of the war effort of this country."

Seven years later, at the start of America's postwar boom, a report from Polaroid's research staff bore the inauspicious title ``Wild Ideas for Promoting Land Cameras to Filling Stations." It proposed that gas stations operating in ``areas abounding in tourists," such as New England, offer ``a free instant photo of every car and occupants stopping for gas, provided the sale amounted to more than $3 ."

These are among the 4,000 linear feet of company documents, test photos, film reels, and other memorabilia recently donated to Harvard Business School by the group that bought Polaroid last year. The collection was amassed over six decades by Land, the Cambridge scientist and inventor best known as the father of the instant camera.

Land's collection is being catalogued by manuscript librarians in massive new research archives below the school's restored Baker Library. The boxes of papers, which would stretch three-quarters of a mile laid end to end, are the archives' largest single collection, occupying an eighth of its space. Harvard will open them to academic researchers and other scholars next year.

``Polaroid has become a symbol of that era of innovation," said Laura Linard , the Harvard Business School director of historical collections. ``Our faculty are very interested in the material."

Housed in climate-controlled stacks near rare books on economic philosophy from 15th century England and more than 1,400 other collections dating back to the Slater textile mills dotting southern New England in the 1800s, the Land collection illustrates the fleeting nature of business leadership and the vulnerability of even the most successful companies to technology shifts.

In its mid-century heyday, Polaroid was a cultural icon, renowned for cutting-edge research, its cameras inspiring awe in a generation of consumers. The company was also a model employer. In an April 26, 1968, letter to Polaroid's workers, preserved in the collection, Land -- the Bill Gates of his era and, like Gates, a Harvard dropout -- asserted that ``our first responsibility is to increase the sense of security and the opportunities for advancement for every individual now in the company."

But within five years after Land's death, in 1991, digital technology began to encroach upon Polaroid's instant photo business. By 2001 the company had filed for bankruptcy. It has since been sold twice to investors who cut research and laid off thousands.

``Polaroid built up huge technology, a skilled workforce, and a wonderful customer base, and lost it all," said Adrian J. Slywotzky , a director of Mercer Management Consulting in Boston, who recalls wanting to work for the company when he graduated from Harvard Business School in 1980. ``Its story has a lot of meaning. It raises the question: If I'm great at one technology cycle, why is there an 80 percent chance that I'm not going to be around two cycles from now?"

Indeed, the Polaroid saga resonates in a state that has spawned other rise-and-fall technology titans, from Digital Equipment Corp. to Wang Laboratories Inc., and in an industry where the pace of innovation is accelerating. The fate of Polaroid may pose a warning for modern-day technologists like Gates, who is struggling to reengineer Microsoft Corp. to meet challenges from Google Inc. and other Internet upstarts.

Harvard's good fortune in obtaining the Land collection resulted from Polaroid's belt-tightening. Five years ago, as the streamlined company was consolidating its Boston-area real estate, its managers began talking about donating the collection. They had preliminary conversations with the Smithsonian Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before settling on Harvard. In 2002, the collection was temporarily moved from Polaroid's historic headquarters in Cambridge to the basement of its Waltham offices on Route 128.

``It was in file cabinets, it was on top of file cabinets, it was loose," recalled Bradford J. Kullberg , Polaroid vice president for corporate strategy and business development.

While many of Land's personal papers were destroyed on his orders after his death, the collection donated to Harvard contains hundreds of thousands of papers documenting the research history of Polaroid products, the company's contribution to US military efforts in World War II, print and television advertising campaigns featuring celebrities like Louis Armstrong and Sir Laurence Olivier , Land's correspondence with his patent attorney -- he obtained more than 500 patents, second only to Thomas Edison -- and other Polaroid milestones.

There are also records and prototypes of the SX-70 and other Polaroid instant cameras, including the original -- the Land camera -- which was first put on sale at Jordan Marsh in downtown Boston just before Christmas 1948. Also in the collection are early versions of sunglasses using polarizing sheets, a no-glare desk lamp, and other products that were revolutionary in their time.

And there are testimonials from early adopters of Land's instant photography. ``When I take a picture, I need to know immediately if it is good, and also need them for reports, etc., immediately," wrote C.E. Winn , a geologist from Carterville, Ill. ``The camera is excellent."

For Slywotzky, who advises companies on changing markets, the lesson from Polaroid is the need to manage transition by ``double betting" on current and emerging technologies. ``The moment of transition is the moment of maximum peril for companies," he said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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