I just finished 2 books on the history of Polaroid 🌈*. A remarkable tech company with enormous success in consumer and industrial applications for decades. It’s also remarkable just how much Apple was influenced by Polaroid.
A brief history
As a child Edwin Land found a copy of the 1911 edition of Physical Optics, a textbook by the physicist Robert W. Wood. He obsessed over its contents, lingering on one chapter in particular: the polarization of light.
In 1928, Ed Land was 19 when he invented the first thin-sheet polarizer. He cofounded Land-Wheelwright Labs with a friend in 1932 after dropping out of Harvard. Their first products were polarized versions of headlights, sunglasses, etc.
They grew slowly with mostly small industrial contracts for 6 years, then reincorporated as Polaroid Corporation. During the war sales grew an order of magnitude, 80% of which went to the military for products like polarized goggles.
In 1943 Land came up with the idea for a film camera that can process right away instead of in a lab. R&D started immediately, but it wasn’t until 1948 their first camera, the Model 95, was released. It went on to sell 900k units in 5 years.
The 95 was a classic disruptive innovation: worse quality than traditional film cams, dismissed as not “real” photography, but appealing to a new market of customers. And profitable: camera for $90, film packages with 60% gross margins.
With all the new cash flow, they could plow it back into R&D. To Land, they had “. . . created an environment where a man was expected to sit and think for two years.”
Polaroid’s growth lasted decades longer, peaking in the ’80s right when, ironically, they won an historic years-long lawsuit against Kodak for patent infringement.
Apple, the spiritual successor
Back to the Apple comparison. The similarities are clear: from values, to marketing, to org structure, to product launches and demos.
Just like Jobs, Land was at the top of every invisible organizational chart. An anonymous former colleague: “Don’t kid yourself, Polaroid is a one-man company.”
When faced with scientific illiteracy or lack of imagination, Land resorted to a restrained bit of showbiz. As it turned out, he was strikingly good at explaining his work to people, and powerfully persuasive.
Ed Land was one of Jobs’ childhood heroes. Jobs met with him later and connected when when Land said his products have always existed, they were just invisible: waiting to be discovered. Apple exemplified Land’s motto “Don’t do anything that someone else can do.”
Polaroid’s downfall started long before the digital apocalypse with their sidelining of Land in the ’80s. His final mistake was giving little thought to his own succession and the future of the company in the new generation. When they all but kicked Land out, Jobs met with and scolded management, saying Polaroid would turn into “a vanilla corporation”.
And it did. Jobs would take this lesson to heart many years later with his own succession plan.
Inspiration, not imitation.
I’ll finish with a Land quote from 1970: “We are still a long way from the… camera that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long … a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses.”
* “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” by Christopher Bonanos (2012).
“Land’s Polaroid: A company and the man who invented it” by Peter Wensberg (1987)