Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land


If a single life exemplifies the inner drive that fires a great inventor, it is the life of Edwin Land. The major innovations that he was able to achieve in photography, optics, industry, and science policy carry priceless lessons for readers today.Insisting on the Impossible is the first full-scale biography of this Magellan of modern technology. Victor McElheny reveals the startling scope and dating spirit of Land’s scientific and entrepreneurial genius. Second only to Edison in the number of patents he ...

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If a single life exemplifies the inner drive that fires a great inventor, it is the life of Edwin Land. The major innovations that he was able to achieve in photography, optics, industry, and science policy carry priceless lessons for readers today.Insisting on the Impossible is the first full-scale biography of this Magellan of modern technology. Victor McElheny reveals the startling scope and dating spirit of Land’s scientific and entrepreneurial genius. Second only to Edison in the number of patents he received (535), Land build a modest enterprise into a gigantic ”invention factory,” turning out not only polarizers and the first instant cameras, but also high-speed and X-ray film, identification systems, 3-D and instant movies, and military devices for night vision and aerial reconnaissance. As a scientist, Land developed a new theory of color vision; as a science advisor to Eisenhower during the Cold War he spearheaded the development of the U-2 spyplane and helped design NASA.Behind these protean achievements was a relentless curiosity, a magical public presence, and a willful optimism that drew him again and again to conquer ”the impossible.” In an era when these qualities are needed more than ever, this masterly biography will speak to anyone involved or interested in business, science, photography, educational reform of government.

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Editorial Reviews

Technology Review
An excellent book [full of] thoroughness and passion.
New Scientist
Insightful, meticulously researched and exquisitely written.
This biography chronicles the life and work of scientific and entrepreneurial genius Land (1909-1991), who held 535 patents. He built a modest enterprise into an "invention factory" that turned out not only polarizers and the first instant cameras, but also high-speed and X-ray film identification systems, 3-D and instant movies, and military devices for night vision and aerial reconnaissance.
The New Scientist
Insightful, meticulously researched and exquisitely written.
Nancy Maull
McElheny...pays careful attention to Land's descriptions of his own methods of technological success....The biography [he] both detailed and overfull, painstaking and underanalyzed....Land diaries or memoir and few letters....The...consequence is an elaborate account of Land's achievements... -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The life of Edwin Land could easily spring from one of Horatio Alger's stories. Son of a scrap-metal dealer, Land dropped out of Harvard to pursue the inventing bug and his dream of creating a cheap plastic sheet polarizer. He wanted to decrease auto accidents caused by headlight glare, but it was with sunglasses and photography that the polarizer and the newly founded Polaroid corporation found success. An inveterate innovator and conceptualizer, Land would eventually receive more patents than any other American, excepting Edison. His genius was both for the sudden inspiration and the organizational ability to get people behind him to fill in the details. For example, the idea for instant photography came to him in the space of an afternoon, but it would take many years and many talented individuals to work out all the details. He also developed a new theory of color vision, worked as a science advisor for President Eisenhower, and helped design NASA. He drove Polaroid relentlessly to create new refinements and inventions such as color film and the SX-70 camera. He was motivated by the belief that "the bottom line's in heaven. The real business of business is building things." His magic touch held right until the end when he developed instant color movie film just as video recorders were coming on the market. The costs to Polaroid were enormous and led to a gradual severing of ties between Land and his company.

Former New York Times science reporter McElheny has done a formidable research job, but he can't seem to decide whether this is a popular account or one for specialists. There are long descriptions of technology and processes that are almost unintelligible to thelayperson. The organization throughout is also appalling, with frequent, inexplicable shifts back and forth in time. Finally, McElheny's Land seems like a guest in his own biography, as ghostly and indistinct as the image on a negative.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780738201900
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/1998
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 979,765
  • Lexile: 1300L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Victor K. McElheny has been covering an age of technology and science for four decades, for newspapers (including The New York Times as its technology reporter), magazines (including Science as its first overseas correspondent), and television (including the BBC in London and WGBH-TV in Boston). He also was inaugural director of the Banbury Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. His thirty-year quest of the biography of Edwin Land began in the White House on February 13, 1969, when Land received the National Medal of Science. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Victor McElheny founded, and directed for over sixteen years, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Sloan Technology Series XI
Chronology XIII
Overture 1
Part I An Inventor Is Born
1 Noontime 5
2 Self-Taught Boyhood 13
3 "First Happiest Moment": Polarizer 24
4 Start-up 48
5 Going Public 69
Part II Detroit and Hollywood
6 Headlight Glare 86
7 Three Dimensions 108
Part III World War II
8 "The Best Damn Goggles in the World" 126
9 "Who Can Object to Such Monopolies?" 140
Part IV New Photography, New Science
10 Sepia in a Minute 161
11 "A Whole New Industry" 189
12 Black-and-White: Meroe Morse 203
13 Instant Color: Howard Rogers 220
14 Color Vision 245
Part V Secret Statesman: Cold War
15 U-2 Spy Plane 278
16 The Shock of Sputnik 306
17 Spy Satellites 322
Part VI Grand Scale: SX-70
18 Demonstrating a "New Medium" 341
19 Collaborators 356
20 Selling SX-70 376
Part VII Exit from Polaroid
21 Crisis 392
22 Instant Movies 409
23 Too Late 425
Part VIII Evening
24 Polaroid v. Kodak 441
25 Prospero's Island 455
Abbreviations 468
Sources 469
Notes 475
Acknowledgments 503
Index 505
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First Chapter

Chapter One



    If this is preparation for life, 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?
--Edwin H. Land, speaking at MIT about an MIT education, 22 May 1957

In public appearances spanning half a century, Edwin Land spoke an autobiography, disjointed and selective, but revealing. Over and over, he talked about his obsessions: autonomy, learning, education, vision, perception, the mind, and the mining of exhausted veins of knowledge for new gold. His onstage comments, particularly about education, interpreted his own experience. Nowhere did Land make such a gloss on his past more forcefully than in May 1957, at a sunny noontime of achievement, wealth, and influence.

    Land was not yet fifty, but his system of instant photography, unveiled ten years before, was finding an ever-expanding market. His shares in Polaroid Corporation, which had developed and completely controlled the new field, were soaring in value toward the hundreds of millions of dollars. His astonishing new observations of human color vision were beginning to attract interest and controversy. The still-secret U-2 spy-plane system that Land had spurred was delivering clear-cut evidence of the real state of Soviet military power.

    In the Little Theater of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on Wednesday evening, 22 May, Land joyfully entered into combat about the right form of college experience. He was certain that a cut-and-dried education spent too much time on blackboard problems and on the past. Students did not spend enough time on the urgent problems of the present, where the answers were not known, where experiments were required. By asking questions and performing experiments, the students could strive for the original contributions of effective and fulfilled people. Although MIT was courting Land's patronage, he attacked its system of education. He also attacked the growing view that science was a socially determined, collective enterprise.

    The talk at MIT trod the thin line between useful advice and the statement of impossible ideals, between experience that was transferable and experience that was unique. For many years, people wondered if "Din" Land's life and mind were so unusual that they might not be exemplary. Just after Land died in 1991, a former president of MIT, Jerome B. Wiesner, exclaimed to a small group of friends planning a memorial symposium, "Din never had an ordinary reaction to anything!"

    It was a springtime of honors for Land. On the afternoon of 13 June, under the trees of Harvard's Tercentenary Theater, Land received an honorary doctorate of science from Harvard University, alongside such dignitaries as the Secretary-General of the United Nations and Robert Woodward, the Harvard chemist who had completed his total synthesis of quinine in 1944 with Land's support. Land was seated a few minutes' walk from the attic laboratory where he had worked as a youth on the sheet polarizer, his first great invention. He was not a speaker at this ceremony.

    During his address three weeks earlier at MIT, where Land had been appointed a Visiting Institute Professor the year before, his manner riveted attention on him. A striking profile was set off by thick black hair, parted on the right. Dark eyes projected intensity. The musing quality of his talk indicated an inner conversation, as if he were searching for the right words for the jury of people in front of him, sometimes trying a half sentence and then substituting a complete one. The audience had a sense of watching Land on a high wire, of participating with him in a half-understood personal drama.

For more than two weeks in April and May, Land had acted as a one-man visiting committee to MIT, just a few blocks away from his red-brick rabbit warren of a laboratory, in what had been the old Kaplan Furniture building on Osborn Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had met with groups of faculty and students, talking about an MIT education. What worked? What didn't work? Land's report to MIT's leaders was delivered in an intimate auditorium in the basement of Eero Saarinen's Kresge Auditorium. The 220-seat room was not quite full, according to one witness. Land's report stung at least some who heard him. Ten years later, this speech, "Generation of Greatness," helped energize the establishment of MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, a means of giving more than 80 percent of MIT undergraduates a direct experience of research. Forty years later, an MIT President said that UROP, embodying Land's hope of greatness, not just for the few but for the many, was "still one of the strongest features of an MIT education." Even more important than Land's influence on MIT, wrote Charles M. Vest, was "a vision of greatness and boldness of spirit that were embraced by others."

    The texts of this and other speeches are valuable because Land kept no diary and left few personal letters. After his death on 1 March 1991, a laboratory associate spent three years shredding his papers, presumably because Land had left instructions to do so. In his speeches Land was showing aspects of his character that he did not mind people knowing. Of course, some references were obscure and went right by his audience. Three years after his MIT speech, he told a meeting of Polaroid employees, "One of the best ways to keep a great secret is to shout it."

    On this particular evening, had there been music, it should have been Beethoven. Land displayed an outsized character from a vanished time, at the boundary between rationalism and romanticism, a character who charmed, challenged, exasperated, and controlled many people.

    Drawing from his life, Land said that education must produce people who, no matter how tightly they conformed to the innumerable commands of society, would find one domain where they would make a revolution. Students should go as rapidly as possible through all the intellectual accumulations of the past to reach quickly the domain where they would have their own work to do. Lectures must be streamlined. Why not use movies to "can" a professor's best lectures "with the vitamins in"? The professors would be captured "at the moment when they are most excited about a new way of saying something or at the moment when they have just found something new." They would waste less time redoing their lectures. With the movies, students could view the lectures as many times as they needed. The proposal looked visionary in the 1950s, but Land soon launched his colleague Stewart Wilson on interactive lectures using such films. Forty years later, in an era of computer keyboards and screens, interactive instruction became much simpler.

    Land showed three examples of such movies. One was a fragment of a lecture on the scattering of light; the second discussed how to minimize certain effects on the transmission of signals; the third was a lecture-demonstration on the pressure that light exerts when it acts as particles. This last film was part of the major effort by the Physical Sciences Study Committee, led by MIT physicist Jerrold Zacharias, to develop a new national high school physics course. In some respects, Land argued, the movies were better than an actual lecture. For one thing, the student could see close-ups of the demonstrations. For another, he said, the movies could reduce the emotional reaction, bad or good, to the lecturer. "Either one is too sensitive to the teacher or one is too insensitive; either one is too wide awake or one is too sleepy."

    A second proposal raised hackles. Each arriving student should have an academic "usher," who would promptly set that student on a research project. Land asserted that the ushers would come from the ranks of great scientists who had arrived at the stage in their careers where bringing the young along was as satisfying as making their own scientific contributions.

    Nari Malani, a student who heard him, was impressed:

    Land was very excited. He wasn't smooth and clear-cut, but slow, pausing, careful, logical with beautiful tangents and humorous model anecdotes, thus illustrating his ideas in a thoroughly human way. He has found order and organization in a chaotic world. He wants every freshman to have the same chance ... His vision was dear. He has seen the new horizons.

    An MIT education, Land feared, was fundamentally discouraging. A student would get a message that a "secret dream of greatness is a pipe-dream; that it will be a long time before he makes a significant contribution--if ever." This process was a disaster. He asked with passion, "If this is preparation for life, where in the world [will a person ever encounter] this curious sequence of prepared talks and prepared questions, questions to which the answers are known?"

    He was talking directly from his own experience. When he had arrived as a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 1926, he had encountered a lot of nice young men who didn't know the connection of anything to anything and who would spend the next ten years reading what he had already read. He wanted to get going on some research that would matter. He wanted to get going on what he thought of as greatness.

    To his MIT audience, Land said, "Either you believe that this kind of individual greatness does exist and can be nurtured and developed, that such great individuals can be part of a cooperative community while they continue to be their happy, flourishing, contributing selves--or else you believe that there is some mystical, cyclical, overriding, predetermined cultural law--a historic determinism."

    "The great contribution of science," according to Land, was to demonstrate that historic determinism is "nonsense." A scientist thinks, "I do not understand the divine source, but I know, in a way I cannot understand, that out of chaos I can make order, out of loneliness I can make friendship, out of ugliness I can make beauty."

    The students he met hoped for greatness. "Everywhere I could sense a deep feeling in the undergraduates ... [N]one of them dared express it, but every one of them felt, in his head, that if a way could be found of nurturing the timid dream of his own potential greatness which he brought from his family and school ... Each of these men felt secretly--it was his very special secret and his deepest secret--that he could be great."

    Greatness, Land argued, is "a wonderful and special way of solving problems," which allows a worker in a field to "add things that would not have been added, had he not come along." He said this is not the same as genius, which consists of "ideas that shorten the solution of problems by hundreds of years," or of suddenly saying, as Einstein did, "Mass is energy."

    [N]ot many undergraduates come through our present educational system retaining [the hope of greatness]. Our young people, for the most part--unless they are geniuses--after a very short time in college give up any hope of being individually great. They plan, instead, to be good. They plan to be effective. They plan to do their job. They plan to take their healthy place in the community. We might say that today it takes a genius to come out great; and a great man, a merely great man, cannot survive.
    It has become our habit, therefore, to think that the age of greatness has passed, that the age of the great man is gone; that this is the day of group research; that this is the day of community progress. Yet the very essence of democracy is the absolute faith that while people must cooperate, the first function of democracy, its peculiar gift, is to develop each individual into everything that he might be. But I submit to you that when in each man the dream of personal greatness dies, democracy loses the real source of its future strength.

    When Land spoke, the word "democracy" had domestic and international implications. That year, school desegregation was beginning in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of 1954 and 1955. The American political system also was threatened with a potentially deadly military confrontation with the totalitarian Soviet state. For those in the know, the concern with deterring a Russian attack underlined the urgency of the overhead reconnaissance that involved both Land and MIT's president, James Killian, who was in the audience.

    Land did not agree that tutelage should last longer in a civilization as complex as that of the Age of Science. "Does it not mean, perhaps, the opposite; that we must skillfully make them mature sooner; that we must find ways of handling the intricacy of our culture?" As professors in his audience grumbled audibly, he poured scorn on the constant testing and grading. "When the professor says, `Hand back what I said,' the professor is telling the student that what he, the professor, said is true. Now the role of science is to be systematic, to be accurate, to be orderly; but it certainly is not to imply that the aggregated, successful hypotheses of the past have the kind of truth that goes into a number system."

    MIT teachers, doing intensely competitive research at the frontiers of their fields, surely would deny that students were ready to make an original contribution. Land countered with an example drawn from an exciting field of that day. The German zoologist Karl von Frisch had recently discovered that bees navigated with the help of the polarization of light in the sky and that they used this navigational information to instruct other bees--by dances--on the whereabouts of good sources of nectar. Land had contributed some of his polarizing filters to von Frisch's research. Land now suggested that students could be encouraged to ask what the analyzer was for polarized light in the bee's eye, or to study bee "language" in greater detail than von Frisch had yet done: "[T]here are areas where untrained people may work effectively and with limited equipment."

    Such use of untrained observers was an old story to Land. At Polaroid, many workers who came from humanistic studies in college or from the factory did useful research in the laboratory. A few years later, Land told an audience at Columbia University, where he had worked secretly at night as a youth, "We have not found anti-intellectualism to be a problem at the Polaroid Corporation, except in the very initial stage of penetration. It only takes a day to change someone from an anti-intellectual to an intellectual by persuading him that he might be one!"

    Land's strictures differed greatly from previous Arthur D. Little lectures given by Edward Appleton and Henry Tizard from England, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, and the psychologist William C. Menninger. The organizing committee had been gunning for Jean Monnet, the French economist who was the architect of what became the European Community, but suspected that he would turn them down, as he evidently did. As a second choice, MIT turned to Land.

    One of those invited to hear the lecture but unable to attend was James B. Fisk, executive vice president and later president of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Fisk was much involved in MIT affairs. In April, he had talked with Land about Land's plans for the MIT lecture. Fisk wrote Killian, "As usual, they are very stimulating and I expect the results will be provocative and profitable."

    Land knew that his remarks had been provocative. Years later, he recalled with rueful pride that some people wouldn't speak to him for days after the lecture. Three days after his address, he sent a handwritten note to Killian to smooth ruffled sensitivities but also to repeat his insistence on change. Thanking Killian for "the privilege of my association with MIT," he denied that he had found MIT lacking. "In fact, I found leadership which has not only proved itself brilliantly already, but which is searching determinedly for the correct next steps." Although MIT felt "peculiarly responsible" for the knowledge inherited from the past, the administration was "courageous enough to examine tradition, and to take from it what is now required, and to add to it what is now needed." He felt strongly that MIT "has the leaders who can abruptly advance education by a generation." Had he not felt that, "I might have been more light-hearted in my presentation." The letter was signed "Din," the nickname he had acquired in childhood, when the name Edwin was still difficult for his older sister, Helen, to pronounce.

    MIT asked Land back. He gave the commencement address in 1960 and spoke at a student-organized Junior Science Symposium in April 1963. On that occasion, he summarized the experiments of Stephen Benton, an MIT student working with him, on the perception of depth and distance. Benton later went to Polaroid and made innovations in holography, which continued after he joined MIT's Media Laboratory. The young man was one of several college students whom Land attracted into his laboratory around this time. The most notable of these was John McCann from Harvard. He collaborated with Land for twenty years on such projects as color-vision research, the development of full-scale photographic replicas of museum paintings, and the organization of increasingly elaborate annual shareholders' meetings.

    Introducing Land in 1963, MIT President Julius Stratton, who had succeeded Killian, referred back to Land's "remarkable" lecture of six years before. Stratton summarized it as having urged that "we draw each incoming student, at the earliest possible moment, into a research project of his own to develop, to instill the scientific experience, to make him feel that he is a part of this and to grow with it and to develop these powers of the imagination; and expressed his deep belief [in] what one can do, even at the earliest stages of a career." The 1957 lecture had influenced MIT to set up its Freshman Seminars, in which more than six hundred students took part in 1962-63. The seminars continue in the 1990s.

    Land followed up on his comments of 1957. A scientist, he said, does not ask, "Why do I believe what I believe?" but rather, "Why do I want to believe what I believe?" He added, "Science, to put it somewhat vulgarly, is a technique to keep yourself from kidding yourself." He told them to get going at once. "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?"

    Back in 1957, Killian had thought over Land's suggestions. He had liked the ideas about starting students immediately on research projects and capturing important lectures on film. On the other hand, he had disagreed with Land's objections to grading and Land's concept of the ushers. Students had been conditioned by previous schooling and would become "restive and impatient" without grades to tell them where they stood. The ushers, Killian thought, would soon become second-class citizens in a research-centered university.

    "Dr. Land has an innovating, creative mind," Killian wrote in a memorandum he never published. "The great value of Dr. Land's fresh view of education is its insistence on the importance of a new approach and his great emphasis on a re-awakened concern with the student as an aspiring individual."

    "An aspiring individual." Killian's phrase applied perfectly to Land. When and how had Land's aspirations sprung up?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2001

    Pick the Right Dare . . . for Lasting Greatness

    This book contains the most detailed information I have seen assembled in one volume about the life of Dr. Edwin 'Din' Land, founder of Polaroid Corporation. Although I long have read public accounts of Dr. Land's work, this book greatly added to my knowledge. For those who would like to understand the rise and fall of Polaroid and its stock price over several decades from 1937 through 1980, this book makes fascinating reading about some of the do's and don't's of running a high technology company that depends on developing new technologies and an on-going stream of innovative products. If you want to understand the techniques employed by Dr. Land to make scientific breakthroughs, there are many insights here into his method of goal-oriented empiricism. Interestingly, it parallels the approaches used by Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Dr. Land left little in the way of writings to draw on other than patent applications and speeches, so these insights are limited primarily to recollections by colleagues. On the other hand, the empirical approach is often guided by instinct based on experience, which is hard to capture. Most scientific thinkers dislike empiricism, so those who use this method can expect many rebukes . . . as Dr. Land received in his work on the nature of color perception. Those who want to understand the scientific breakthroughs that Polaroid made will probably come away confused unless they already have a great knowledge of optics and chemistry related to photography. I learned a great deal from the book, but would have liked to learn more. I graded the book down one star for this weakness. If you want a fascinating, new look into the emerging arms race with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, there is much interesting material here about Dr. Land's role as a national advisor on defense surveillance. I was a guest at a dinner hosted by Dr. Land in the mid 1960s during which he demonstrated his new technology of instant color photography...His good humor, generous attitude toward his guests, and his sincere desire to transform the world, however, left me with a more profound lesson -- seeing much more potential for what a company can be than I would otherwise have had. Dr. Land explained his vision that night in terms of releasing the human spirit and encouraging all of us to create and appreciate more beauty. Although glimpses of this side of Dr. Land come through in the book, they are overshadowed by the overall theme of a flawed genius. I dislike books that argue for flaws in geniuses. That approach serves to make them more human, but not in a way that makes us appreciate them or their good points. Geniuses are by their nature obsessed by their work, and their personal quirks can be quite negative. ... By the standards of 20th century geniuses, Dr. Land was a regular guy. In fact, the extent to which he retained his humanity is part of his greatness. I think an alternative explanation to the one in this book of Dr. Land's limitations as a leader is entirely possible and appropriate. Whenever he was engaged in endeavors where strong leaders were invol

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2000

    what a great book

    i gave this book 5 stars because it tells a great deal of things on him though his years of living.

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