Polaroid and Apple: Innovation Through Mental Invention

In an excerpt from his new book Ten Steps Ahead, author Erik Calonius tells us about Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid Camera, unsung hero of consumer products, and personal hero of Steve Jobs.

Ten Steps AheadSteve Jobs admits to few idols. But one is Edwin Land, the college dropout who invented the polarizing filters used in everything from car headlights to sunglasses. Land, of course, also invented the Polaroid Land Camera. It happened like this: One time when Land and his three-year-old daughter were in New Mexico, she asked why she couldn't immediately see a photograph that he had snapped. He took a short walk through the desert, pondering that question. By the time he had returned (and it was no more than an hour, he recalled), he had visualized the elements of the instant camera. "You always start with a fantasy," he said. "Part of the fantasy technique is to visualize something as perfect. Then with experiments you work back from the fantasy to reality, hacking away at the components."

Now, some 40 years later, Land had agreed to meet with Jobs at Land's laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jobs was on one side of the conference table, Land on the other. They were of different generations, but cut from similar cloth: Jobs, the dropout from Reed College; Land, the dropout from Harvard. Jobs, working nights inventing video games at Atari; Land, lifting a window and sneaking into a lab at Columbia University at night to use the school's equipment. Jobs, neglecting his clothes and his health to build his PCs. Land, who in his prime worked 20 hours a day, forgetting to eat, and wearing the same clothes for days on end.

Land once told a reporter, "If anything is worth doing, it's worth doing to excess ... My whole life has been spent trying to teach people that intense concentration for hour after hour can bring out in people resources they didn't know they had." Similarly, Jobs had once remarked, "We have a short period of time on this earth ... My feeling is that I've got to accomplish a lot of things while I'm young."

Now the two visionaries were in the same room for the first time. Apple CEO John Sculley sat to the side and watched. Sculley later wrote in his autobiography that neither Jobs nor Land looked at each other as they spoke about their dreams and inventions, but stared at something between them in the center of the table.

"I could see what the Polaroid camera should be," Land remarked. "It was just as real to me as if it were sitting in front of me before I had ever built one." As the two focused on the emptiness between them, the Land camera came into focus, like a hologram.

Jobs watched. His eyes were focused as well. "Yeah, that's exactly the way I saw the Macintosh," he said.

Later, when driving home, Jobs told Sculley, "It's like when I walk into a room and I want to talk about a product that hasn't been invented yet. I can see the product as if it's sitting there right in the center of the table. It's like what I've got to do is materialize it and bring it to life—harvest it just like Dr. Land said."

Sculley drove on, stunned. "Both of them had this ability to—well, not invent products, but discover products," he wrote later. "Both of them said these products have always existed, it's just that no one had ever seen them before. We were the ones who discovered them."

Excerpted from Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries From the Rest of Us by Erik Calonius by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Erik Calonius.

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  • Loraine Antrim

    Erik, I think the point of your excerpt from the book is that even the great innovator, Steve Jobs, has a role model. To me, the take away is not whether Land was or was not a great innovator, whether he is mythic or more ordinary. The point is, even innovators like Steve Jobs don't innovate in a vacuum. They look outside themselves to figures who can help the next spark come out. For Jobs, Edwin Land is a possible spark ignition. Loraine Antrim http://cxomindset.blogspot.com...

  • Scott Berkun

    The flash of insight story about Land is overstated, as these stories often are. Land was a scientist who had been working on photographic materials for years ( he studied polarized light while at Harvard). He had the experience of inventing many very technical elements for photography before he considered the idea for instant photography.

    It's true it may have taken him only an hour to conceive the design of the instant camera, but that conception depending on thousands of hours of prior study in the field, as well as hundreds of hours that followed that insight in order to make the camera a reality in product form.

  • A.J. Horst

    I draw much inspiration from Jobs and Land. Any great entrepreneur walks through like envisioning ways things could be better. Many people have this mindset; but the truly great individuals in society will find a small problem with the way the world works, come up with a solution to that problem, and then execute that solution beautifully.

    The execution part with what maid Jobs and Land legendary. All the time you hear people say, "You know I thought of the idea for Ebay," or "I came up with the idea for Facebook way before Zuckerburg," or "I had the idea for Netflix even before the Internet was even popular." The difference is, these people didn't do anything about it.

    In other cases, you'll find individuals that did do something about it, but didn't execute. Personal computers were around before apple; along with a point and click operating system, mp3 players, and smart phones. What apple did was take what had been done before, and execute so brilliantly that you'd think they were the first ever to invent such devices...and for all practical purposes, they were.

    -A.J. Horst
    President - 3Boost

  • David Gage

    It is ironic that you mention the openness to creation Edwin Land had. I was an international accountant for Polaroid way back then and one night when I was in Cambridge, MA dealing with some international accounting rules related to currencies I had a drink with Mr. Land. He made the choice to visit us accountants who worked for him but when spending time with me he also wanted to talk about something else and in a short period of time made the following comment: “You accountants don’t add any value to this company”. Now most people in my profession would be upset and would respond, however I took another sip of my drink while he also had a sip of his good scotch and I waited for him to say something else which he did and that was “The only people who add real value to this company are those who create the products, those who make the products and those who sell the products. The rest of you are only along for the ride.” Now I may be a certified international accountant with a diverse business background but believe this or not it took me many years to understand what he meant. So many of us in today’s world actually go to work and are paid to add zero value to the economy. The taxation systems in the USA alone cost the American consumers an enormous amount of money and they do not add a penny in value to our society. Think about this for a moment. If we as a nation were to adopt the taxation system laid out in the book ‘True Freedom – The Road to the First Real Democracy” a lot less of the costs for product production would be for the no-value added services which in turn would lower our costs were the American consumers would not be the only beneficiaries as our ability to compete in the world would improve thereby leading to increased exports and a healthier economy.

  • Ajay

    I totally agree with the position that innovation is “FIRST, a phenomenon of the mind”. I have had wonderful success ONLY when I can "see in my mind's eye in excruciating detail" exactly what I am striving to create.

    While this clarity made me confident and comfortable during the creation process, it was invaluable when I needed to communicate a compelling view of the end-result to others, to motivate and drive their contributions, without which I would not have succeeded.

    Furthermore, engineering to materialize what I can clearly “see” is easy because, like Land said, all I have had to do was “find and put the pieces together” – a task of Discovery and only a smidgen of “gluing together invention”.