Impatience Is Also a Virtue

Insisting On The Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land, Inventor of Instant Photography

What happens to the spark of greatness many 18-year-olds have when they arrive at MIT, Harvard, Caltech or Stanford? For most, Edwin Land once said, it is extinguished by undergraduate education’s preoccupation with “questions to which the answers are known.” The message in all those lectures and exams, he feared, is that the “secret dream of greatness is a pipe-dream; that it will be a long time before [a student] makes a significant contribution-if ever.”

Land’s unwillingness to wait helps explain why he dropped out of Harvard (twice) and, at the age of 24, earned the first of his 535 U.S. patents on the manipulation of light. It may also explain his interest in instant cameras, born one day in 1943 when his equally impatient young daughter, whose picture he had just taken, asked why she could not see it right away. What is certain is that Land’s irreverence toward received wisdom helped him to build a unique empire of invention, the Polaroid Corp., and to transform the way his contemporaries thought about not one, but three momentous subjects: photography, nuclear-age military reconnaissance and the biology of color vision.

Unfortunately, the inventor did much to discourage biographers, rarely granting interviews during his 81-year lifetime and arranging for his papers to be shredded after his death in 1991. But he has been skillfully thwarted by Victor McElheny, a distinguished science journalist who followed Land’s career for decades. (In the interest of full disclosure: McElheny is a member of Technology Review’s board of directors and was a dissertation advisor to this reviewer.)

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Like the spy planes and satellites Land helped develop in the 1950s and 1960s, McElheny has both a broad field of view and an acute eye for detail. He documents, for example, the importance of the science advising apparatus that arose during the Eisenhower administration and Land’s little-known part in it. A crucial question in 1954 was the strength of the Soviet bomber force, and Land was convinced that a high-altitude spy plane carrying thousands of feet of film could be built to answer it. He helped overcome Air Force resistance to the idea, and far from heightening Cold War tensions, McElheny argues, the U-2 aircraft that resulted gave Eisenhower the information he needed to deflate the Pentagon’s fears of Soviet superiority and to slow the arms race.

But McElheny dwells with equal thoroughness and passion on the ingenious chemical tricks Land and his co-workers devised so that exposed negatives could create their own positives without darkrooms, wetness or a wait. Gripped by such a technical challenge, McElheny relates, Land could go for days without leaving his laboratory. His mottoes were “Never go to sleep with a hypothesis untested” and “Every problem can be solved with the things in the room at the time.” The ultimate secret of Land’s greatness, McElheny’s excellent book implies, was that a question only interested him if its answer was unknown.

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