Edwin Land and Polaroid Photography

The Polaroid Land Camera 95A
The Polaroid Land Camera 95A. Robert Alan Smith / Moment / Getty Images

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 Instant Revolution

Land, an American inventor, physicist, and avid photography collector, invented a one-step process for developing and printing photographs that revolutionized photography. The Harvard-educated scientist got the germ of his groundbreaking idea when his young daughter asked why the family camera couldn’t produce a picture immediately. Land returned to his lab inspired by the question and came up with his answer: The Polaroid Instant Camera, which snapped a photo, and allowed the photographer to remove the developing print, which was generally ready in about sixty seconds.  

The first polaroid camera–called the Polaroid 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 these photos didn’t quite match that of traditional photographs, professional photographers latched onto the device as well, using it to take “test” photos as they set up shots.

In 1960, Edwin Land approached the Henry Dreyfuss design company to collaborate on a camera design, the result of which was the Automatic 100 Land Camera and the Polaroid Swinger camera in 1965. The black and white Swinger camera sold for under $20 and was a big hit with consumers.

Later Developments

An intense, passionate researcher, 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, a viewing system called the Vectograph and even participated in the development of the U-2 spy plane.

On April 26, 1976, one of the largest patent suits involving photography was filed in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. Polaroid Corporation, the assignee of numerous patents relating to instant photography, brought an action against Kodak Corporation for infringement of 12 Polaroid patents relating to instant photography. On October 11, 1985, after five years of vigorous pretrial activity and 75 days of trial, seven Polaroid patents were found to be valid and infringed. Kodak was out of the instant picture market leaving customers with useless cameras and no film. Kodak offered camera owners various compensation for their loss.

With the rise in digital photography at the start of the 21st Century, the fate of the Polaroid seemed grim. In 2008 the company announced it would stop making its patented film. However, the Polaroid instant camera has turned out to have a second life, as an Austrian devotee formed the Impossible Project and raised funds to develop monochromatic and color film for use with Polaroid instant cameras, ensuring that fans can continue to click away.