History of Polaroid and Edwin Land
The Polaroid company, which started in Cambridge and spread across several towns, was a juggernaut of innovation. In modern terms, Polaroid was the Apple of its time with a Steve Jobsian leader in Edwin Land, a scientist who guided the company as the CEO for several decades.
Polaroid was feisty, ubiquitous and pioneering while fending off copycats in court. But the company suffered a long decline starting in the ’80s leading to bankruptcy in the 2000s. Take a look at its history, its lasting impact, and future possibilities.
“Dr. Land,’’ as most people referred to him, left Harvard College before graduation to start inventing in a Cambridge garage. In 40 years, Land built up a company that did about $1.4 billion of business all over the world in 1979. He stuck to his guns, never diversified into other businesses, never sold out to another company, and never borrowed money on a long-term basis.
Pictured: In 1944, Land was asked by his 3-year-old daughter why she could not see the picture he had just taken of her. Her request led to the Polaroid Land Camera in 1948.
Polaroid, which was incorporated in 1937, got its start by grafting polarizer technology onto every product imaginable, including 3-D movies and glare-reducing goggles for dogs.
During World War II, Polaroid designed and manufactured numerous products for the armed services including an infrared night viewing device polarizing and colored filters for rangefinders and periscopes. Pictured: General George S. Patton wearing Polaroids goggles.
As a 22-year-old Harvard dropout in New York, he sneaked into Columbia University labs to invent the artificial polarizer, which splits light waves into separate beams.
An early Polaroid scientist Bill O’Keefe is pictured in this 1939 photograph holding two interlocking polarizing discs. The discs became Polaroids’s Corporate logo, underlining the company’s origins as a manufacturer of light polarizing products including glare free desk lamps and variable density windows for trains.
Land had a penchant for administering impromptu color-blindness tests to his employees. He stored a personal bottle of Tanqueray gin beneath the counter at the Original Bar and Grill, a block away from Polaroid’s old Main Street headquarters in Cambridge.
He disliked biography attempts. “I regard my scientific papers as my essential biography,’’ Land said. “I pour my whole life into the scientific project I’m investigating. I leave behind the things I’ve done in the past to do the work in the present.’’
Pictured: Land stood outside his laboratory in Cambridge in 1946. This was taken using experimental films he was then developing.
Land’s name appears on 533 US patents, second only to Thomas Edison’s 1,093. He led the company as CEO for 43 years during its transformation from a small research and marketing firm into one of the hottest high-tech companies ever. Land rarely compromised.
“Land is like a bear,’’ said former Polaroid executive Peter Wensberg. “You can admire the bear. You can do things with the bear. But you have to be very careful not to be eaten by the bear.’’
Pictured: The Polaroid Model 95A, one of the earliest “Picture-in-a-Minute” cameras pioneered by Land.
Polaroid’s first camera was put on sale at Jordan Marsh in downtown Boston just before Christmas 1948.
When Land started the company in the 1930s Kodak bought his first product — the polarizing filter. And for most of the ’50s and ’60s, it manufactured negatives that Polaroid used in its film packs. Land would show off products to Kodak engineer.
Pictured: Harvard Yard in Cambridge taken in 1946 with a Model 95 camera using Polaroid Land film Type 40.
Polaroid put high technology into the hands of the consumer.
At a sales meeting in the 1970s, a young salesman asked a question from the audience about the “bottom line’’ of Polaroid’s sales performance that year. Land responded quickly from the stage, “My dear young man, don’t you know the bottom line is in heaven?’’
Pictured: A wooden prototype camera from 1960.
In essence, instant photography packs all the operations of a darkroom inside the film itself. The film has to catch light from a camera lens, turn it into a negative image, then reverse the image and make a positive one. It has to start the process at the right time, end it at the right time, and make sure the image lasts.
Pictured: MIT Museum Curator Deborah Douglas held the Polaroid Model 95A in 2005.
Polaroid’s invention of instant photography created a new business line that didn’t just sell cameras. It charged about $1 for each sheet of coated paper that developed into a photograph before people’s eyes. The film sales produced huge profit margins with no competitor to do anything about it.
Pictured: July 1957. Steve Allen acted in many commercials for Polaroid on his television show in the mid and late 1950s. This magazine ad is essentially a “translation’’ in printed form of a typical Steve Allen TV ad.
In the late 1960s, the Polaroid Corp. had an interesting idea. The company recruited the world’s best-known photographers, such as Ansel Adams, William Wegman, and Andy Warhol, provided them with free film and studio space, and said: Have a ball. When you are finished, please give us a few prints, which we will include in our corporate collection.
Pictured: A magazine advertisement for the 965 Polaroid Swinger camera.
The Polaroid Artists Collection grew to 16,000 prints by 120 recognized masters: 443 by Ansel Adams, 198 by Phillipe Halsman, 35 by Mary Ellen Marks, and so on through Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Rauschenberg, Inge Morath, and Margaret Bourke-White. It’s not just Polaroids. Some of the pictures, by Bourke-White, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange, hung in Polaroid founder Edwin Land’s library.
Pictured: Cape Cod in a 1972 Polaroid photograph by Harry Callahan.
Six days after Kodak announced instant-photo cameras in 1976, Polaroid announced they were suing the rival film company. Polaroid was fighting back against the inroads of an industrial giant seven times its size. Kodak had cash items on its balance sheet of $1.6 billion.
Land charged that Kodak had stolen its patented inventions to make the new cameras.
Pictured: A close-up of the Swinger camera.
Kodak assigned up to 1,400 researchers to try dozens of instant-photo techniques, according to court documents. The code-name for their work changed at least four times as they failed to make some work and found themselves beaten to the punch on others by their counterparts at Polaroid.
Pictured: Land on the cover of Life magazine in 1972 showing off the Polaroid SX-70 single-reflex camera.
Kodak workers came up with a camera that employed a sticky, peel-away film (similar to the kind used in old Polaroid cameras) that the user pulled out of the camera with a string. Then Polaroid started marketing the SX-70, which dispensed with the peel-away and automatically ejected the picture from the camera.
Pictured: The Polaroid SX-70.
Kodak documents showed officials calling Polaroid’s SX-70 camera a “masterpiece of engineering.’’ Kodak dumped its $94 million investment in a peel-apart instant product in 1972 when it recognized this was “essentially an obsolete product,’’ soon to be replaced by the newer SX-70 technology. Kodak rushed to copy Polaroid, using 30,000 film units and 70 SX-70 cameras.
Pictured: Some Polaroid eyewear products.
When Kodak first introduced its new cameras in 1976 and Polaroid sued, the instant photography business was about to take off. In the two years that followed – and in large part because of Kodak’s added advertising – total sales of instant cameras climbed from 7.4 million cameras in 1976 to 10.3 million in 1977 and 14.3 million in 1978.
Pictured: Land held up a color photograph he took moments earlier with a new Polaroid SX-70 film that produced a fully developed print in about one minute in 1979.
It took 10 years, but the court ruled in favor of Polaroid, ordering Kodak to cease instant picture production and pay $909.5 million. It was a monumental federal court victory but Polaroid officials sought $12 billion and analysts expected up to $2 billion.
Pictured: Land announced the Kodak lawsuit at a press conference, annual shareholders meeting in 1976. Polaroid President Roger William McCune Jr. was on the right.
During Polaroid’s heyday in the 1960s, one veteran recalled, bonuses were so common and so high that Main Street Ford, across the street from Polaroid’s Waltham plant, used to plan promotions to coincide with the instant-camera maker’s bonus days. In 1977, the company celebrated the 30th anniversary of instant photography with a $100,000 party. More than six million Polaroid cameras were sold that year.
Pictured: An attendee at the second annual Hipster Olympics in Berlin tried out the Polaroid Land Camera in 2012.
Land introduced his new Instant Home Movie camera during the 40th annual shareholders meeting in Needham in 1977.
He was known for his impressive presentations that showed off new technology for the everyday consumer. Land once invited a ballerina to perform to show off a new camera at a press conference.
The Polavision was a color motion-picture system that made 2½-minute films in self-developing cassettes. The camera ushered in the era of the home video.
Polavision was unveiled with characteristic flourish, but it did not sell well in retail stores. His “living image system’’ turned out to be his swan song for Polaroid. The product eventually forced the company to write off $89 million and led to Land’s resignation as chairman in 1981. He had been in charge for more than four decades.
Pictured: Land in front of projected slide of the works of the new instant motion picture film cassette in 1977.
Polaroid sought to innovate in the declining market for instant pictures and create newer products despite Land’s absence.
Pictured: The Polaroid 35mm autoprocess films for computer graphics “Hard Copy” in 1981. The rapid access convenience and in house security of the new 35mm Autoprocess transparency system make it ideal for producing 35mm slides of computer data for meetings outside the electronic environment.
Polaroid plowed much of the profits from the instant photography business throws off into high-resolution imaging and electronic imaging systems — used in everything from computerized X-rays to tamperproof automobile licenses.
Pictured: Howard Worzel, left, and Martin Agulnek, showed off some photos on Polaroid film made with a visible light LED printer in 1989. A photo can be seen exiting the printer on lower right.
The 1980s were not kind to Polaroid, which was trying to reinvent itself by shifting away from a dependence on consumer photography, a market in steady decline. In addition to fending off a takeover thrust by California-based Shamrock Holdings Inc., controlled by Roy E. Disney, Polaroid was forced to make wholesale changes, including firing thousands of workers and closing local factories.
Pictured: Ludger Viaud, left, and Patricia Wells of Dorchester, worked on a production line packaging Polaroid Type 779 film at a Polaroid facility in Waltham in 1995.
In the ’90s, the rise of new technologies — one-hour color film processing, single-use cameras from competitors, videotape camcorders, and digital cameras — drastically changed the world of photography. Not only were there more choices for capturing images, but the total cost for each picture has dropped substantially.
Pictured: The PolaPulse Light from Polaroid featured a sleek design and Polaroid’s patented ultra-thin battery that lasts up to five years in 1997. Compact and disposable the flashlight offers “instant lighting” anytime, anywhere.
Edwin Land died in 1991. He ordered his notes and correspondence be destroyed after he retired in 1981. What was left perished in a fire that consumed his home years later.
“The purpose of inventing instant photography was essentially aesthetic,’’ Land said in 1947, announcing the process’s invention.
Pictured: An overnight fire completely gutted the $5 million mansion of Edwin Land on Brattle Street in 2005.
Polaroid laid off thousands of workers and closed more manufacturing plants. The company shifted into disposable cameras for its instant photos. But this was years after other filmmakers, Kodak and Fujifilm, were already in the market.
Pictured: Tweety Bird, JoyCam, PopShots in 1999.
Because of cost pressures, the company indefinitely shelved plans to create a combination camera that produced instant photos and 35-millimeter negatives and another combination camera that yielded instant photos along with digitally stored images.
Pictured: A camera to television prototype in 1996.
To keep costs down, the company made virtually all new instant camera and film products in China and other low-wage countries — a move that has prompted Polaroid to close more Massachusetts production facilities. In another streamlining move, the company left its longtime corporate home in Kendall Square for a Polaroid-owned building on Memorial Drive that had been mothballed.
Pictured: New Polaroid instant camera and film system styled for portability, on the spot picture viewing, storage or sharing. Designed for customers seeking on the spot picture taking with the convenience of hands free picture storage and viewing of the most recently exposed image in 1992.
Polaroid released a tiny portable printer in 2001. The company envisioned a way for advertisers such as restaurants and retailers to reach cellphone users with printouts. That would give Polaroid an additional revenue stream from the new product, along with sales of the device, and refills of printout media.
Pictured: Polaroid’s wireless lifestyle printer.
Polaroid filed for bankruptcy in October 2001.
The company announced a plan that gave the top 45 executives bonuses just for staying at their jobs. Meanwhile, other employees were restricted from selling their stock before leaving their jobs.
Pictured: The Polaroid World Headquarters in Cambridge.
The employee stock ownership plan was crucial in fending off a hostile company takeover. But as Polaroid’s fortunes waned in the late 1990s, the ESOP became a source of frustration. Employees couldn’t sell their shares until they left the company. As Polaroid’s stock sank, employees saw a big piece of their life savings evaporate. Meanwhile, executives who owned shares outside the plan were free to sell.
Pictured: Les Embrey was one of the employees assigned to deliver $47 Polaroid retirement checks.
A group of Minnesota-based investors bought Polaroid’s assets, including the photo collection. Then they declared bankruptcy. The creditors were granted permission to auction off the valuable artifacts in Polaroid’s archives.
Pictured: Former Polaroid Building at 103 4th Ave. in Waltham.
Polaroid announced that the company would stop producing instant film in 2008. The era of the offhand whirr-whirr-whirr of Polaroids – push, click, eject; push, click, eject – was over.
Pictured: Polaroid 300.
Pictured: A former Polaroid building is being rebuilt at Reservoir Wood in Waltham. The rendering shows what it’s projected to look like when finished.
Blasting at the former Polaroid property in Waltham, which started in spring2012 and will continue through October, has triggered a series of complaints from neighbors who say some of the explosions are big enough to rattle their homes.
After the blasting is done, a 280,000-square-foot mixed-use retail and office space will be constructed.
Pictured: The old Polaroid building being torn down as seen from Route 128.
Pictured: A rendering of the Commons At Prospect Hill, a planned office and retail project being developed by New York-based The Related Companies on the site of the former Polaroid company headquarters.
Polaroid Chairman Bobby Sager and artist Lady Gaga unveiled the Polaroid Grey Label of products Lady Gaga co-designed at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics
A Polaroid portrait of Lady Gaga, creative director of Polaroid, was unveiled during a press conference at the MIT Museum in Cambridge in 2010. Polaroid announced a donation of 10,000 archive items to the MIT Museum during a press event.
Prior to the event Lady Gaga was photographed by a classic 20×24 Polaroid camera – the only one existing in the world and housed in a studio in New York City. She left after and skipped the press conference.
After Polaroid announced that it would stop producing analog instant film, a group of former employees bought a Polaroid film factory in the Netherlands. The company was called The Impossible Project.
The team had to create new color dyes from scratch. But today, instant photo enthusiasts can order select films online or at a handful of specialty stores.
Pictured: The Impossible factory in a building north of the former Polaroid plant in Enschede.
Analog photographs shifted to digital in recent years, but for those who miss the thick, tactile, slightly unreal feeling of a Polaroid, the folks at The Impossible Project are designing a machine that converts digital photos to a physical copy.
A successful Kickstarter campaign was launched recently to capitalize on the growing market for customers tired of staring at their photos on a screen.
Perhaps Polaroid still has a role in the future of photography.
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