Edwin Land demonstrates his invention of ‘instant photography’ to the press, February 21, 1947; Steve Jobs shows off the new iPad during an Apple event in San Francisco, 2010.
THE GENERALIST loves making interesting connections and believes in meaningful coincidences. Having pencil-marked my way through ‘Inside Apple’ the 2012, a major journalistic investigation into this most secretive of companies by Fortune journalist Adam Lashinsky, I received a review copy of this brand new history of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos, an editor at New York magazine.
Needless to say, the first is dominated by Steve Jobs, whose dark ghost still haunts the corridors of the company he fashioned in his own complex image, the second by the extraordinary caring obsessive genius of Edwin Land. Steve Jobs has achieved guru status and public prominence but who did Steve Jobs idolise? None other than Edwin Land, his precursor and the man from whom he learnt his promotional wizardry.
The parallels are impossible to ignore, from the gnomic utterances, to the product launches, to the micro-managing and the total dedication to front-end R&D in the service of a technological vision no matter what the cost.
Land and Polaroid captured the imagination of previous generations with instant photography but were unable to engage with the digital industries that destroyed their business. Apple is in the early days of adjusting to Jobs’ death and many wonder whether its possible for the company to match the stellar achievements of their former presiding genius who made it the richest corporation in the world.
According to Lashinsky, Jobs visited Land in 1983 with the then Apple CEO John Scully, who recalled ‘the two bonded over their shared ability to envision changing products before the products had been built.’
Jobs later told Playboy: ‘Land was a troublemaker. He dropped out of Harvard and founded Polaroid. Not only was he one of the great inventors of our time but, more important, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organisation to reflect that.’
When Jobs met Land, he had just been fired by Polaroid, a decision Jobs considered ‘one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever heard of.’ Land subsequently had little to do with the company, avoided any public profile and left instructions that all his personal papers be burnt after his death. Jobs left Apple in 1985 but returned in 1997 to transform it into a world-beater.
Bonanos also references the Playboy interview in which Jobs refers to Land as ‘a national treasure’ but says Land was ‘semi-coaxed into retirement’ rather than fired. He also say Jobs met Land three times when Apple was on the rise and that, by Sculley’s account: ‘the two inventors described to each other a singular experience. Each had imagined a perfect new product whole, already manufactured and sitting before him, and then spent years prodding executives, engineers, and factories to create it with as few compromises as possible.’
[Spookily I had just been reading a long review in the LRB by Jackson Lears of Ray Monk’s masterful new biography of Oppenheimer who was ‘brimming with feverish excitement’ when he realised it would be possible to create a nuclear chain reaction. The only BUT was that it would need to use U-235, a rare isotope present in less than 1 per cent of natural uranium. You could not produce the large amount needed to make a bomb, physicist Niels Bohr said, ‘unless you turn the US into one huge factory. Lears comments: ‘This it turned out, was what the government was prepared to do.’]
Bonanos nails the parallels with acute accuracy:
‘When it introduced instant photography in the late 1940s, Polaroid the corporation followed a path that has since become familiar in Silicon Valley…
The most obvious parallel is to Apple Computer, except that Apple's story, so far, has a much happier ending. Both companies specialized in relentless, obsessive refinement of their technologies. Both were established close to great research universities to attract talent (Polaroid was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it drew from Harvard and MIT; Apple has Stanford and Berkeley nearby). Both fetishized superior, elegant, covetable product design. And both companies exploded in size and wealth under an in-house visionary-godhead-inventor-genius…
Just as Apple stories almost all lead back to Jobs, Polaroid lore always seems to focus on Land. In his time, he was as public a figure as Jobs was…
At Polaroid's annual shareholders' meetings, Land often got up onstage, deploying every bit of his considerable magnetism, and put the company's next big thing through its paces, sometimes backed by a slide-show to fill in the details, other times with live music between segments.
A generation later, Jobs did the same thing, in a black turtleneck and jeans. Both men were college dropouts; both became as rich as anyone could ever be'; and both insisted that their inventions would change the fundamental nature of human interaction.’
Fuller review of both books in next post.