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 Ahead

Steve 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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