This Day in Jewish History Introducing the Polaroid Camera

On this day in 1948, the world got its first look at the Polaroid camera that would revolutionize instant photo technology and come to emobody the look of nostalgia.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On November 28, 1948, the instant Polaroid Land Camera went on sale for the first time at the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston, Massachusetts. Invented by the Jewish entrepreneur Edwin H. Land, a largely self-trained physicist, the first batch of Polaroid cameras sold out within a day. Eventually the product was found in half of all households in the United States, according to the Polaroid company.

Land was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on May 7, 1909, the son of the Russian-born Harry Land, a scrap-metal dealer, and the former Martha Goldfaden. “Din” Land, as he was nicknamed as a child and continued to be called throughout his life, began college at Harvard University but dropped out after a year and moved to New York, where he began experimenting with filters to polarize light. His interest in the subject had been sparked one summer at sleep-away camp by a near-accident in which one driver was temporarily blinded by the glare of an oncoming car. Because he wasn’t associated with an academic institution, he would read the scientific literature at the public library, and sneak into laboratories at Columbia University at night to do his experimentation.

By 1932, having mastered the technology that would allow him to produce polarizing filters, he established his company, Land-Wheelwright Laboratories, which five years later was renamed Polaroid Corporation. The polarizing gel he invented found its most successful commercial application in coating for sunglasses.

The idea for an instant camera came to Land while on vacation in New Mexico, after his 3-year-old daughter asked him why photographs didn’t come out of the camera in a finished state. He later said that he pondered the question while taking a walk and, within an hour, stimulated by the “dangerously invigorating plateau air of Santa Fe,” he had figured out the basic design of a camera that would produce its own instant photographic print. From there, however, another four years would pass before Polaroid Land Camera Model 95 went on the floor at Jordan Marsh a few weeks before Christmas 1948.

Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple computers, called Edwin Land one of his chief inspirations, describing him as a "national treasure.” Both men were college dropouts, both would imagine a product and then set out to bring it to life, and both were perfectionists who believed in investing in R&D but not in market research, since, as Land said, “Every significant invention must be startling, unexpected, and must come into a world that is not prepared for it.” Land was unusual in hiring many women for his company, and during the civil-rights struggle, he introduced an affirmative-action plan for hiring blacks.

Sepia-tone instant photographs were quickly followed by black-and-white, and then, in 1963, Polaroid brought out a camera that produced instant color prints. Land also did defense-related work, both during and following World War II: His company produced the optics for the Lockheed U-2 spy plane. Later products included the stylish SX-70 single-lens reflex camera, in 1970, from which emerged a finished photograph (with earlier models, the photographer had to wait for the print to develop and then had to apply a layer of fixer to it), and an instant movie camera that was a flop.

Land retired from the company in 1983, at which time he held 533 patents. He died on March 1, 1991. Since 2001, the company he founded has gone into bankruptcy twice and been sold three times. It stopped producing cameras in 2007.

The classic Polaroid camera, which revolutionized instant photography.Credit: Bloomberg

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