Photo Sharing 1.0 | Up Close

How Polaroid cofounder Edwin Land created an instant sensation.

By Jenn Johnson

Jun 18 2018

Photo Credit : Eugene Ilchenko

Edwin Land was only 19 and a recent Harvard dropout when he applied for his first patent: a transparent plastic sheet that could cut glare from bright light. This technology—which would revolutionize everything from sunglasses to headlights—became the basis of the company he cofounded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1932 and later named Polaroid.

A prolific inventor, Land notched more than 500 additional patents before he died in 1991. But it was his 70th “special experiment”—project SX-70—that would make him a household name. Inspired by his 3-year-old daughter, who had asked to immediately see the pictures he was taking during a family trip, Land began designing a camera and film system that could be its own darkroom.

The result was the Polaroid Land camera, which made its public debut on Black Friday 1948 at Boston’s Jordan Marsh store. At four-plus pounds, the world’s first instant camera was heavy. At $89.75, it cost 15 times more than the popular Kodak camera of the day, the Brownie. And within hours, it sold out: All 56 Land cameras and film packs were snapped up. Even the demo model was gone.

Polaroid’s Land cameras enjoyed decades of success (by the 1960s, an estimated half of all American households owned one) before they were ultimately elbowed aside by things like one-hour processing and videocams. The fact that Instagram based its first-ever logo on a 1977 Land camera, however, shows that their core appeal—instantly seeing and sharing pictures—is as modern as ever.

Jenn Johnson