Edwin Land, instant photography inventor, dead at 81

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Edwin H. Land, who invented instant photography and founded the Polaroid Corp., died Friday. He was 81.

Land, one of America's most prolific inventors, died at an undisclosed hospital in Cambridge after a long illness, said the Rowland Institute for Science Inc., which he founded in 1980.


Land, who held 533 U.S. patents, founded Polaroid in 1937 and retired from the company in 1982. He severed his relationship with Polaroid in 1985 when he sold all his stock in the company.

Land dedicated the Rowland Institute, which he endowed with more than $50 million in Polaroid stock, to the pursuit of pure science research.

A spokesman for the institute, Victor McElheny, said Land had been hospitalized for a few weeks with an undisclosed illness.

'He's really been ill for a couple of years,' McElheny said.


Funeral services were not immediately announced.

Land enjoyed a reputation as a great inventor because of his interest in the human eye.

His name did not become a household word, however, until he invented the Polaroid camera, a box that ushered in the era of instant photography.

Land was not satisfied with the clumsy box that was the first Polaroid camea and the awkward manner of mechanically squeezing chemicals on treated paper to reproduce a picture. So he spent many hours of study before creating a push-button camera that would deliver a color-perfect picture in only a few minutes. He called it the SX-70 and it won the admiration of the photographic industry.

He was responsible for the first modern polarizers for light in 1927, a sequence of subsequent polarizers and for the theory and practice of many applications for polarized light.

After finishing high school in Norwich, Conn., Land entered Harvard University where he conducted experiments on the nature of light, particularly in polarization. He later developed a glass-like plastic that reduced the glare of light and decided to try to market it as a safety device for windshields. At that time, he could not find a buyer.


Unwilling to give up his study of light in relation to the eye, Land formed a company to manufacture sunglasses and other optical shields. At the end of World War II his company's revenues totaled more than $10 million.

It was during World War II that Land conceived the idea of a camera that would produce a developed photograph shortly after the scene had been snapped. The finished product was a heavy camera that used chemicals to create black and white snapshots. The film was inserted in the back of the camera. As it was pulled laterally with a rapid motion the chemicals were squeezed on the film paper. A finished snapshot was the result.

Several years later Land broadened the scope of the Polaroid camera by perfecting a film that would produce snapshots in color. But he was not satisfied because the procedure of extracting the film was the same.

As in the production of black-and-white photographs, getting the color snapshots was a messy operation and often the chemicals got on the hands of the person operating the camera.

So Land sought a dry process and found it after long hours of contemplation. It involved developing the film outside the camera. Moments after the picture is snapped by the pressing of a button, the film emerges from the camera as a blank piece of paper and then the colors begin appearing and deepening until fully developed.


Land left his position as chief executive officer of Polaroid in 1980 but retained his post as chairman.

He resigned as chairman and director July 27, 1982, saying he was ending his almost 50-year association with the firm to devote his energies to a non-profit institution designed to support basic scientific research.

'I look forward to a new period of creative freedom for myself and to a generation of industrial grandeur for Polaroid,' he said.

Polaroid said at the time that Land left behind a legacy and a great company 'that is testimony to his technical genius, his leadership and his social ideals.'

In 1977, Land was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame after winning many other honors, including honorary doctorates.

Land announced in 1979 his intention to create the Rowland Institute and reduce his activities at Polaroid.

He said the institute was 'dedicated to achieving deeper insights in fields ranging from physical chemistry to human color vision.'

'The research I have already been involved in at the institute seems so significant that I regard it as important not to delay further my move to this new organization,' he said.


Land is survived by his wife Helen Maislen, who he married in 1929, and daughters Jennifer and Valerie.

Latest Headlines