The Man Who Inspired Jobs

In the memorials to Steven P. Jobs this week, Apple’s co-founder was compared with the world’s great inventor-entrepreneurs: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell. Yet virtually none of the obituaries mentioned the man Jobs himself considered his hero, the person on whose career he explicitly modeled his own: Edwin H. Land, the genius domus of Polaroid Corporation and inventor of instant photography.

Land, in his time, was nearly as visible as Jobs was in his. In 1972, he made the covers of both Time and Life magazines, probably the only chemist ever to do so. (Instant photography was a genuine phenomenon back then, and Land had created the entire medium, once joking that he’d worked out the whole idea in a few hours, then spent nearly 30 years getting those last few details down.) And the more you learn about Land, the more you realize how closely Jobs echoed him.

Both built multibillion-dollar corporations on inventions that were guarded by relentless patent enforcement. (That also kept the competition at bay, and the profit margins up.) Both were autodidacts, college dropouts (Land from Harvard, Jobs from Reed) who more than made up for their lapsed educations by cultivating extremely refined taste. At Polaroid, Land used to hire Smith College’s smartest art-history majors and send them off for a few science classes, in order to create chemists who could keep up when his conversation turned from Maxwell’s equations to Renoir’s brush strokes.

Most of all, Land believed in the power of the scientific demonstration. Starting in the 60s, he began to turn Polaroid’s shareholders’ meetings into dramatic showcases for whatever line the company was about to introduce. In a perfectly art-directed setting, sometimes with live music between segments, he would take the stage, slides projected behind him, the new product in hand, and instead of deploying snake-oil salesmanship would draw you into Land’s World. By the end of the afternoon, you probably wanted to stay there.

Three decades later, Jobs would do exactly the same thing, except in a black turtleneck and jeans. His admiration for Land was open and unabashed. In 1985, he told an interviewer, “The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.”

The two men met at least twice. John Sculley, the Apple C.E.O. who eventually clashed with Jobs, was there for one meeting, when Jobs made a pilgrimage to Land’s labs in Cambridge, Mass., and wrote in his autobiography that both men described a singular experience: “Dr. Land was saying: ‘I could see what the Polaroid camera should be. It was just as real to me as if it was sitting in front of me, before I had ever built one.’ And Steve said: ‘Yeah, that’s exactly the way I saw the Macintosh.’ He said, If I asked someone who had only used a personal calculator what a Macintosh should be like, they couldn’t have told me. There was no way to do consumer research on it, so I had to go and create it and then show it to people and say, ‘Now what do you think?’”

The worldview he was describing perfectly echoed Land’s: “Market research is what you do when your product isn’t any good.” And his sense of innovation: “Every significant invention,” Land once said, “must be startling, unexpected, and must come into a world that is not prepared for it. If the world were prepared for it, it would not be much of an invention.” Thirty years later, when a reporter asked Jobs how much market research Apple had done before introducing the iPad, he responded, “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Land, like Jobs, was a perfectionist-aesthete, exhaustively obsessive about product design. The amount he spent on research and development, on buffing out flaws, sometimes left Wall Street analysts discouraging the purchase of Polaroid stock, because they thought the company wasn’t paying enough attention to the bottom line. (When a shareholder once buttonholed Land about that, he responded, “The bottom line is in heaven.”)

His supreme achievement, the folding SX-70 camera of the 1970s, was as covetable a luxury object in its moment as the iPod was 30 years later. At the touch of a hand, it collapsed down to a flat, clean pocketable prism, beautifully finished in brushed chrome and leather. One source says he spent $2 billion — and those are 1960s and early-1970s dollars — on developing the camera and its film. Jobs saw, and Jobs understood: “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 organization to reflect that.”

And Land was, like Jobs in 1985, all but forced out of the company he’d built. In the mid-’70s, Land threw himself behind a doomed project called Polavision. It was an instant 8-millimeter home-movie system, and a gorgeous bit of technology, and it also took more than a decade to get out of the labs and into stores. By the time it did, it was dead on arrival, clobbered by Sony’s burgeoning Betamax video cameras.

For the first time, Land had spent a fortune and failed to deliver, and colleagues began to question his infallibility. His board had long been hinting that he needed to put a succession plan in place, and, at 70, Land was coaxed into ceding his chairmanship. For the first time, he had to get his research budgets approved, and he chafed at his lack of autonomy. He couldn’t exactly be fired — he was far too knitted into his company’s structure, both financially and spiritually — but, as one colleague put it, “He liked winning, and when in the end he didn’t win all the time, it became very difficult for him.” After a frustrating couple of years, he quit Polaroid in 1982, soon selling all his stock. He even skipped the company’s 50th-anniversary bash five years later.

After their founders departed, both Polaroid and Apple slowly began to lose their edge, their innovation machines gradually cooling down and falling behind other technology companies’. Apple lost a huge amount of its head start to Microsoft and the cheap-PC business; at Polaroid, one-hour photo labs and then digital photography began to encroach, helped along by some management decisions that ultimately backfired. By 1996, Apple was up against a wall, and called its founder back in, who immediately began to perform one of the great turnarounds in business history. (By the time things started to get really tough at Polaroid, there was no going back to the source; Land died in 1991, at 81.)

Polaroid still exists, but it is nothing like the cauldron of innovation that Land and his colleagues built. Since 2001, the company has declared bankruptcy twice and been sold three times. One of the former C.E.O.’s is now serving a 50-year prison sentence for fraud. The company’s newest owners appear to be making a promising move toward the future again, but few people are expecting Polaroid to be the extraordinary scientific think tank, pumping out ideas and profits in tandem, that it once was — or that Apple is. Here’s hoping that Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s new C.E.O., is paying very close attention to the Polaroid cautionary tale.

Christopher Bonanos, an editor at New York magazine.

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