Harvard Magazine
Main Menu · Search ·Current Issue ·Contact ·Archives ·Centennial ·Letters to the Editor ·FAQs


Land with lens, in a 1943 portrait, surrounded by a "Mondrian" display developed for testing human subjects in his color-vision research. Photograph courtesy of Polaroid Corporation. Photomontage by Bartek Malysa


When he received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1957, 25 years after dropping out of the College for the second time, the scientist-innovator Edwin Land '30 was not glowing with approval of undergraduate education. Just three weeks earlier, in a striking speech at MIT, Land had protested a process that stifled students' drive to "greatness," that is, originality. He said that students had to wait too long to meet the first-rate minds, when they needed to begin direct research at once. "If this is preparation for life," Land asked, "where in the world, where in the relationship with our colleagues, where in the industrial domain, where ever again, anywhere in life, is a person given this curious sequence of prepared talks and prepared questions, questions to which the answers are known?"

In Land's opinion, colleges were not the only institutions stifling young innovators. Because big companies had settled into established fields, and small companies couldn't afford "scientific prospecting," young men with ideas had difficulty developing them.

Even as a youth, Land chose not to be stifled. Entering Harvard in 1926, he left after only a few months to pursue his first great invention, plastic sheet polarizers, in the hope that they would conquer headlight glare. Studying the history of optics in the grand reading room of the New York Public Library, he did experiments in a succession of basement laboratories and at Columbia University. Stymied in following a path scientists had trod for 75 years, Land tried the opposite and succeeded.

Returning to Harvard in 1929 to perfect the sheet polarizer, he sufficiently impressed Theodore Lyman, the mandarin of the physics department, that he was given his own lab. In 1932, Land became the only undergraduate ever to give a physics department colloquium, and described his polarizer.

Then he dropped out again, to found a company with physics instructor George Wheelwright III '25. They plunged into years of technical agony, mostly in grimy Boston buildings. They learned to make reliable, cheap polarizers and sell them for camera filters and sunglasses, and they persuaded investors of the huge potential market for polarizers to control headlight glare and view 3-D movies. In 1937, with financing from James P. Warburg '17 and other Wall Street leaders, the enterprise became Polaroid Corporation.

The life that followed the organization of Polaroid was intense and varied, and crammed with honors. In World War II and again during the Cold War, Land worked on defense problems, most notably reconnaissance. He energized and supervised both the U-2 spy plane and its successor satellites, and helped design the mission of NASA. The search for the mechanisms of color vision engaged him from 1955 to the end of his life.

A prophet of the science-based company so common today, he hit upon an entire new industry: instant photography. It happened because of a dramatic, even romantic, event in 1943. On vacation in Santa Fe, he photographed his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and she asked why she couldn't see the picture right away. At once, thinking "Why not?" Land set off on a walk and, in an hour as he recalled, worked out the basics. The first instant camera and film--producing sepia pictures in 60 seconds--went on sale in 1948. Black and white followed in 1950, color in 1963. Less than 10 years later, he spent hundreds of millions "restating" his industry with the highly successful motorized SX-70 cameras and films that developed in daylight. But soon after, he spent vast sums to create a non-video, instant-color movie system that people didn't buy, which ended his career at Polaroid.

By then, he was ready to move to his own lab, the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge, where he could focus on his quest to explain how color vision worked. Experimenting largely with human subjects who were shown color displays, he sought to explain "color constancy"--why an apple that looked red at noontime also looked red at sunset. He theorized that the colors derive from complex computations in the brain. Psychologists rejected his results as trivial or not new, but neurophysiologists were interested enough to collaborate on experiments with him.

His new lab freed its scientists from teaching, committee work, and the constant hunt for grants. It was the gift of a contrarian, as were his donations to start Harvard's freshman seminars--to give students contact with great minds right away--and his anonymous $12.5 million for the Harvard Science Center--to give undergraduate science more weight in a research-oriented university.

Land loved science, calling it "one place that people can be greater than they thought they could be." In 1963 he said, "Science, to put it somewhat vulgarly, is a technique to keep yourself from kidding yourself." He told MIT students, "The only safe procedure for you, now that you have started, is to make sure that from this day forward until the day you are buried, you do two things each day. First, master a difficult old insight, and, second, add some new piece of knowledge to the world each day. Now does that seem extravagant?"


Science writer Victor King McElheny '57, Nf '63, based his recent biography of Edwin Land, Insisting on the Impossible (Perseus Books), on decades of observation and interviews.

Main Menu · Search ·Current Issue ·Contact ·Archives ·Centennial ·Letters to the Editor ·FAQs
Harvard Magazine