Edwin Land Inventor of the Polaroid Born – Today in History: May 7

Polaroid Big Swinger 3000 Camera, ca. 1960s - National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

On May 7, 1909, Edwin Herbert Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A scientist and inventor, Land is known best for his development of instant photography (or the “Polaroid”), but it was his invention of a synthetic polarizer—a thin film to distort light and reduce glare—that actually launched his career.

Detail from Edwin H. Land's patent for Polarizing Refracting Bodies, filed April 26, 1929

Detail from Edwin H. Land’s patent for Polarizing Refracting Bodies, filed April 26, 1929

As a boy Edwin Land became fascinated with kaleidoscopes and the properties of light. It was while at camp that he first grasped the idea of polarization. It happened when an automobile he was riding in nearly hit a wagon at night. Land believed that vehicle headlights needed to be stronger but knew that stronger headlights blinded oncoming drivers. He believed it possible to reduce the glare, however, by introducing a polarizing effect.

Land entered Harvard in the fall of 1926 but, impatient to find an efficient means of manufacturing his idea, he left after just a few months. By 1928 Land was back at Harvard, however, and soon filed a patent for polarizing refracting bodies. The invention consisted of a transparent polymer material for coating sheets of film or other materials; the polymer consisted of billions of microscopic crystals per centimeter and the alignment of these crystals changed the polarization.

Yousuf Karsh,Edwin Land, 1983 - Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery

Yousuf Karsh, Edwin Land, 1983 – Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery

The potential uses for Land’s invention proved innumerable. He partnered with Harvard physics instructor George Wheelwright III to form Land-Wheelwright Laboratories in 1932 and by 1934 they sold their first polarizing products. These products helped American Optical produce sunglasses and Eastman Kodak manufacture photographic filters. Business boomed and Land and Wheelwright reorganized the company into the Polaroid Corporation in 1937. Serving as president for nearly fifty years, Land proved instrumental in the invention of many of the company’s products, receiving more than 500 patents.

Learn More


Polaroid.com. “Polaroid History,” 2016. Link.


Land, Edwin H., and Joseph S. Friedman. Patent Number 1,918,848 - Polarizing Refractig Bodies. 1,918,848. New York, NY, issued July 18, 1833. Link.
Harvard, Baker Library, Bloomberg Center, Historical Collections. “Polaroid Corporate Archives,” 2016. Link.


McElheny, Victor K. Edwin Herbert Land: May 7, 1909-March 1, 1991. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999.
Wensberg, Peter C. Land’s Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who Invented It. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

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