The inventions of Edwin Land made Polaroid a great company — and later accelerated its decline. Insisting on the Impossible, written by former New York Times reporter Victor K. McElheny, tells the story of one of the early giants in photographic technology.
McElheny follows Land’s career from before the founding of Polaroid in 1937 through the release of the landmark SX-70 camera in the early ’70s. Land invented instant photography and turned his company into a tremendous success and a Wall Street darling in the ’60s and ’70s. Land was a bulldog about patents—he trails only Thomas Edison in number of patents he received (535). But while the protection of the U.S. patent system helped Polaroid fend off attacks by its chief nemesis, Kodak, they couldn’t shield Land from his own shortcomings. Land tended to lose track of business costs and he sometimes took criticism too personally. And he disdained market research. McElheny writes that Land’s business philosophy boiled down to “making things that people didn’t know they wanted until they were available.” One of Land’s final inventions—instant movies—loaded Polaroid with debt and sped his departure from the company he founded. Unlike instant photography, nobody wanted “Polavision.” It lacked sound and the film was too short. It was soon overwhelmed by the more popular and practical videocassette tape. Land’s instant photography also fell out of favor. It couldn’t compete with Kodak Instamatics, improved 35mm cameras, and fully automatic digital cameras.
Land, who died in 1991, was bitter by the time he left Polaroid. He sold all his stock and refused to show up at the company’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 1987. His inventions seemed like ancient history. Maybe that’s a lesson for today’s technology hotshots.