Learn About Edwin Land, Inventor of the Polaroid Camera

The Polaroid Land Camera 95A
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Before the rise of smartphones with digital cameras and photo-sharing sites like Instagram, Edwin Land’s Polaroid camera was the closest thing the world had to instant photography.

The Launch of Instant Photography

Edwin Land (May 7, 1909–March 1, 1991) was an American inventor, physicist, and avid photograph collector who co-founded the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1937. He is known for inventing a one-step process for developing and printing photographs that revolutionized photography. The Harvard-educated scientist got his groundbreaking idea in 1943 when his young daughter asked why the family camera couldn’t produce a picture immediately. Land returned to his lab inspired by her question and came up with his answer: the Polaroid Instant camera that allowed a photographer to remove a developing print with an image that was ready in about 60 seconds.

The first Polaroid camera, the Land Camera, was sold to the public in November 1948. It was an immediate (or should we say instant) hit, providing both novelty and instant gratification. While the resolution of the photos didn’t quite match that of traditional photographs, professional photographers adopted it as a tool for taking test photos as they set up their shots.

In the 1960s, Edwin Land’s instant cameras got a more streamlined look when he collaborated with industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss on The Automatic 100 Land Camera and also on the Polaroid Swinger, a black and white model that was designed and priced at under $20 to appeal to average consumers.

An intense, passionate researcher who amassed more than 500 patents while at Polaroid, Land’s work was not limited to the camera. Over the years, he became an expert on light polarization technology, which had applications for sunglasses. He worked on night-vision goggles for the military during World War II and developed a stereoscopic viewing system called the Vectograph that could help detect enemies whether or not they were wearing camouflage. He also participated in the development of the U-2 spy plane. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and the W.O. Baker Award of the Security Affairs Support Association in 1988.

Polaroid’s Patents Are Challenged

On October 11, 1985, the Polaroid Corporation won a five-year patent infringement battle against Kodak Corporation, one of the country’s largest patent lawsuits involving photography. The U.S. District Court of Massachusetts found that Polaroid’s patents were valid and infringed. As a result, Kodak was forced to pull out of the instant camera market. In a good faith effort, the company began offering compensation to their customers who owned their cameras but wouldn’t be able to purchase a suitable film for them.

New Technology Threatens Polaroid

With the rise of digital photography at the start of the 21st century, the fate of the Polaroid camera seemed grim. In 2008, the company announced it would stop making its patented film. However, the Polaroid instant camera remains viable thanks to Florian Kaps, André Bosman, and Marwan Saba, the founders of The Impossible Project, which raised funds to help create monochromatic and color film for use with Polaroid instant cameras.

Land’s Death

On March 1, 1991, at the age of 81, Edwin Land died from an undisclosed illness. He had been ill for a couple of years, spending his last few weeks at an undisclosed hospital in his hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Information about the actual cause of his death was never readily available per his family’s wishes, but his gravesite and tombstone can be found in Cambridge at the Mount Auburn Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark and the resting place of many historically significant citizens of the Boston area.