Edwin H. Land Essays

The two men met at least twice. John Sculley, the Apple C.E.O. who eventually clashed with Jobs, was there for one meeting, when Jobs made a pilgrimage to Land’s labs in Cambridge, Mass., and wrote in his autobiography that both men described a singular experience: “Dr. Land was saying: ‘I could see what the Polaroid camera should be. It was just as real to me as if it was sitting in front of me, before I had ever built one.’ And Steve said: ‘Yeah, that’s exactly the way I saw the Macintosh.’ He said, If I asked someone who had only used a personal calculator what a Macintosh should be like, they couldn’t have told me. There was no way to do consumer research on it, so I had to go and create it and then show it to people and say, ‘Now what do you think?’”

The worldview he was describing perfectly echoed Land’s: “Market research is what you do when your product isn’t any good.” And his sense of innovation: “Every significant invention,” Land once said, “must be startling, unexpected, and must come into a world that is not prepared for it. If the world were prepared for it, it would not be much of an invention.” Thirty years later, when a reporter asked Jobs how much market research Apple had done before introducing the iPad, he responded, “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Land, like Jobs, was a perfectionist-aesthete, exhaustively obsessive about product design. The amount he spent on research and development, on buffing out flaws, sometimes left Wall Street analysts discouraging the purchase of Polaroid stock, because they thought the company wasn’t paying enough attention to the bottom line. (When a shareholder once buttonholed Land about that, he responded, “The bottom line is in heaven.”)

His supreme achievement, the folding SX-70 camera of the 1970s, was as covetable a luxury object in its moment as the iPod was 30 years later. At the touch of a hand, it collapsed down to a flat, clean pocketable prism, beautifully finished in brushed chrome and leather. One source says he spent $2 billion — and those are 1960s and early-1970s dollars — on developing the camera and its film. Jobs saw, and Jobs understood: “Not only was he one of the great inventors of our time but, more important, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organization to reflect that.”

And Land was, like Jobs in 1985, all but forced out of the company he’d built. In the mid-’70s, Land threw himself behind a doomed project called Polavision. It was an instant 8-millimeter home-movie system, and a gorgeous bit of technology, and it also took more than a decade to get out of the labs and into stores. By the time it did, it was dead on arrival, clobbered by Sony’s burgeoning Betamax video cameras.

For the first time, Land had spent a fortune and failed to deliver, and colleagues began to question his infallibility. His board had long been hinting that he needed to put a succession plan in place, and, at 70, Land was coaxed into ceding his chairmanship. For the first time, he had to get his research budgets approved, and he chafed at his lack of autonomy. He couldn’t exactly be fired — he was far too knitted into his company’s structure, both financially and spiritually — but, as one colleague put it, “He liked winning, and when in the end he didn’t win all the time, it became very difficult for him.” After a frustrating couple of years, he quit Polaroid in 1982, soon selling all his stock. He even skipped the company’s 50th-anniversary bash five years later.

After their founders departed, both Polaroid and Apple slowly began to lose their edge, their innovation machines gradually cooling down and falling behind other technology companies’. Apple lost a huge amount of its head start to Microsoft and the cheap-PC business; at Polaroid, one-hour photo labs and then digital photography began to encroach, helped along by some management decisions that ultimately backfired. By 1996, Apple was up against a wall, and called its founder back in, who immediately began to perform one of the great turnarounds in business history. (By the time things started to get really tough at Polaroid, there was no going back to the source; Land died in 1991, at 81.)

Polaroid still exists, but it is nothing like the cauldron of innovation that Land and his colleagues built. Since 2001, the company has declared bankruptcy twice and been sold three times. One of the former C.E.O.’s is now serving a 50-year prison sentence for fraud. The company’s newest owners appear to be making a promising move toward the future again, but few people are expecting Polaroid to be the extraordinary scientific think tank, pumping out ideas and profits in tandem, that it once was — or that Apple is. Here’s hoping that Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s new C.E.O., is paying very close attention to the Polaroid cautionary tale.

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HONORS AND DISTINCTIONS

Cresson Medal, Franklin Institute, 1937

National Modern Pioneer Award, National Association of Manufacturers, 1940

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1943; president 1951–53

Rumford Medal, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1945

Holley Medal, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1948

Duddell Medal, Physical Society of Great Britain, 1949

National Academy of Sciences, 1953

Potts Medal, Franklin Institute, 1956

American Philosophical Society, 1957

Society of Photographic Scientists and Engineers, 1957

Doctor of science degree, Harvard University, 1957

Member, President's Science Advisory Committee, 1957–59; consultant-at-large 1960–73.

Member, President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, 1961–77

Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, Honorary Fellow, 1958

Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1963

National Academy of Engineering, 1965

Albert A. Michelson Award, 1966

William James Lecturer on Psychology, Harvard University, 1966–67

Frederic Ives Medal, Optical Society of America, 1967

National Medal of Science, 1967

Founders Medal, National Academy of Engineering, 1972

Optical Society of America, Honorary Member, 1972

The Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1975

National Inventors Hall of Fame, 1977

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Honorary Member, 1980

The Royal Society, foreign member, 1986

William O. Baker Medal of Achievement, Security Affairs Support Association, 1988

National Medal of Technology, 1988

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