The Polaroid Corporation, which once employed 21,000 people, got started in a Lebanon, Conn., boys camp in 1922. It happened when a teacher showed a 13-year-old boy how to take the glare off a tabletop.
The teacher was Barney “Cap” Girden, a colorful finagler who would later hold 20 patents for skin-diving inventions.
The summer camp was Mooween, which operated on the shores of Red Cedar Lake from 1921-63. So beloved was Mooween by its campers that they lobbied successfully to revive it as Mooween State Park in 2008.
The 13-year-old boy was Edwin Herbert Land, who in his lifetime patented 535 inventions, more than any American except Thomas Edison. As an advisor to President Eisenhower, Land spearheaded the development of the U-2 spy plane. He also founded and ran Polaroid, a global corporation that employed 15,000 people in Massachusetts alone. The company churned out polarizers, instant cameras, X-ray film, 3-D movies and military devices for night vision. So popular was Land’s instant photography during the 1970s that people shot a billion Polaroid photos in a year. Ansel Adams, David Hockney and Andy Warhol all took Polaroids.
Land was not only a brilliant inventor, but a business pioneer. When he faced stiff competition for scientific talent, he hired women from Smith College’s art department . Then he sent them to science classes. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Land took Polaroid to the forefront of the affirmative action movement. He set the prototype for the successful Silicon Valley startup. Steve Jobs called Land his boyhood hero and inspiration.
Edwin Herbert “Din” Land was born on May 7, 1909 in Bridgeport, Conn. His grandparents, Avram and Ella Solomonovich, had fled the Ukraine to escape anti-Semitism. When they arrived in the United States, they learned they had “landed.” They misunderstood and registered themselves as “Lands.” Otherwise, the Polaroid Land Camera probably would have had a different name – and probably not Solomonovich.
Two years later, Din went to Camp Mooween in nearby Lebanon. It was a Roaring ‘20s version of nerd camp founded recently by the charismatic Cap Girden. Many years later, the L.A. Weekly would dub Girden a “nutty professor” for his ideas to eliminate smog. The New York Times called him “a minor-league inventor and major-league finagler whose business acumen was as absent as the funds to cover most of his checks.”
Girden’s enthusiasm for science and nature profoundly influenced the boys who attended Camp Mooween. He would wake them in the middle of the night to watch a thunderstorm and explain why it was the greatest show on earth. Or he’d point to a single fern and turn it into a fascinating story about history, dinosaurs and the origin of coal.
The camp’s alumnae include Yip Harburg, who wrote Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and Julius Silver, a founder of Brandeis University and lifelong advisor to Land. Many of the camp’s alumni would return year after year for a reunion, well after Camp Mooween had disappeared.
A Growing Fascination With Polarization
Din Land was already intrigued by light when he arrived at Camp Moowen, but it was Girden who inspired his enthusiasm for polarization. One day at the camp, Girden showed him how a Nicol prism – a filter fashioned from a clear calcite crystal – screened light waves to eliminate the glare from a tabletop. Land attributed the entire direction of his career to Girden’s demonstration of polarization.
Girden taught him to use polarizing photometers, which can measure the intensity of a beam of daylight as compared with a beam that has a steady, predetermined intensity. And it was Girden who told Din Land of the need for a synthetic material that would polarize light as it passed through.
That summer, Land was driving at night with a Camp Mooween counselor. Their headlights were so dim they nearly ran into a team of horses hitched to a farm wagon. That led to a discussion back at camp about the need to boost headlights’ intensity – and to reduce glare to make nighttime driving safer.
Land would spend his next decades in an obsessive quest to put synthetic polarizers on automobile headlights. Along the way, he would successfully commercialize his cutting-edge technology in myriad products.
“The Most Exciting Single Event in My Life”
Land’s on-again, off-again relationship with Harvard began when he was 17. He dropped out after his freshman year to try to invent the synthetic polarizer that Cap Girden told him the world needed. With financial support from his father, Land moved to New York City and spent long hours doing research in the New York Public Library, his own small apartment and Columbia University’s physics laboratory.
Finally he hit on a method of dissolving tiny crystals in a sheet of nitrocellulose lacquer and aligning them in a magnetic field. The moment Land turned an electromagnet onto suspended crystals and watched transmitted light turn from white to black was “the most exciting single event in my life.”
That discovery — of a teenaged college dropout — would later take the form of inexpensive polarizers used in hundreds of millions of calculators, watches, camera filters, sunglasses and microscopes. It would also draw Land into the field of instant photography.
Land returned to Harvard, but dropped out again to form a start-up company with his physics instructor – first in Cambridge, then in a dairy barn in Waltham, Mass. For decades he would try to sell his synthetic polarizers to the auto industry. He never succeeded.
Land’s fledgling company did get a contract in 1934 from Eastman Kodak to make photographic polarizing filters. American Optical also agreed to buy polarized sunglasses in 1935. In 1939, the company moved to Cambridge, Mass.
During World War II, military contracts kept Polaroid alive. The company, which then had 240 employees, worked with the military to develop night-vision goggles, target finders and heat-seeking missiles.
Polaroid Instant Camera Breakthrough
On a sunny day in 1943, Land took a photograph of his three-year-old daughter Jennifer while the family vacationed in Santa Fe. The toddler asked him why she couldn’t instantly see the photo. Struck by the question, Land took off on a walk around the town – and solved the puzzle.
“Within an hour, the camera, the film and the physical chemistry became so clear to me,” he said.
He later said he solved nearly all the problems of instant photography during that walk – except for a few details that needed to be worked out between 1943 and 1973.
The Polaroid Instant Camera
Polaroid launched the instant camera during the 1948 Christmas season. The company made 60 cameras with a price tag of $89.75 and put 56 on the shelves at Jordan Marsh in downtown Boston. They sold out in one day.
From then on, Polaroid expanded rapidly on the strength of its instant camera sales. The company went public in 1957 and was on of the hottest stocks on Wall Street during the 1960s. It built new factories and formed international subsidiaries. By 1970, it had $500 million in annual sales. At its height in the 1970s, Polaroid employed nearly 15,000 people in Massachusetts . Many worked at its huge Waltham campus along Route 128.
Land went on to win many honors, to become a very wealthy man, to advise presidents. In 1972, he was featured on the cover of Life magazine with the SX-70 camera. The headline: “A genius and his magic camera.”
At the age of 73, he told a friend where it all started:
“I’m here with you,” he said, “because when I was a kid some teacher showed me a Nicol prism taking the reflection off a tabletop.”
Land died in 1991 at 81.
What Happened Next
Digital photography dealt a death blow to Polaroid. In 2000, a real estate firm bought its Cambridge headquarters, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The company declared bankruptcy in 2001. A private equity firm bought most of the company and kept the name Polaroid. In 2005, Land’s Brattle Street home in Cambridge burned to the ground. The same year Polaroid decided to send its manufacturing to China. That company declared bankruptcy in 2008. What was left of the original company was renamed Primary PDC. In May 2009, two firms acquired Polaroid and placed under a holding company. The Polaroid brand is licensed to other products.
In 2010, Polaroid named Lady Gaga as its creative director. A wrecking ball took down the last building on the Waltham campus. A solar cell company bought Polaroid’s New Bedford plant, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Note: With thanks to Victor K. McElheny, who wrote “Insisting on the Impossible,” for much of the content in this post. This story was updated in 2021.
Images: Polaroid Land Camera by By Jonathan Mauer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52307390.