Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

27 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Timeless Lessons in Ingenuity and Entrepreneurship from the Story of Polaroid


The Apple of yore’s eye, or what modern entrepreneurs can learn from Edwin Land.

In 1942, iconic inventor and Polaroid founder Edwin Land stood up in front of his employees and boldly laid out a vision for incremental success that soon catapulted Polaroid into cultural legend status. By the 1970s, a billion Polaroid photographs were being shot every year, and Polaroid had no real competitor. Fast-forward three decades, to the era-defining surge of digital photography, and it wasn’t long before film photography in general, and Polaroid in particular, became a fringe fixation for specialty hobbyists and artists. Between 2001 and 2009, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy twice, was sold three times, eventually discontinued Polaroid film in 2008, then filed for Chapter 11 in 2012. What happened, and what does its story reveal about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the pursuit of creative vision?

That’s precisely what New York magazine senior editor Christopher Bonanos explores in Instant: The Story of Polaroid (public library) from Princeton Architectural Press — a fascinating tale of rapid rise, catastrophic collapse, and the riveting ride between the two, at once told like never before and strangely familiar in its allegorical quality. Bonanos writes:

When it introduced instant photography in the late 1940s, Polaroid the corporation followed a path that has since become familiar in Silicon Valley: Tech-genius founder has a fantastic idea and finds like0minded colleagues to develop it’ they pull a ridiculous number of all0nighters to do so, with as much passion for the problem-solving as for the product; venture capital and smart marketing follows; everyone gets rich, not not for the sake of getting rich. For a w while, the possibilities seem limitless. Then, sometimes, the MBAs come in and mess things up, or the creators find themselves in over their heads as businesspeople, and the story ends with an unpleasant thud.

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. At Apple, that man was Steve Jobs. At Polaroid, the genius domus was Edwin Herbert Land.

And, indeed, the parallels between the two visionaries are innumerable — key among them, perhaps, being the adamant belief in creative vision over consumer demand: “Marketing is what you do when your product is no good,” Land famously proclaimed, insisting that you had to give people something they didn’t know they wanted but, once they faced with it, found it irresistible; “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Jobs famously said. Even their showmanship bore striking resemblance:

At Polaroid’s annual shareholders’ meeting, Land often got up onstage, deploying every bit of his considerable magnetism, and put the company’s net big thing through its paces, sometimes backed by a slideshow t 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 wish to be; and both insisted that their inventions would change the fundamental nature of human communication.

But Land was much more than a great showman — he was an extraordinary inventor. In his lifetime, he received 535 United States patents and advised several presidents, including Nixon, who once reportedly asked an aide, “How do we get more Dr. Lands?” (The irony, of course, is that “Dr.” was a cultural rather than academic honor, as Land had dropped out of Harvard.) Perhaps most noteworthy, however, was his cross-disciplinary curiosity, something both great scientists and great artists have advocated for:

[A]longside his scientific passions lay knowledge of art, music, and literature. He was a cultured person, growing even more so as he got older, and his interests filtered into the ethos of Polaroid. His company took powerful pride in its relationship to fine artists, its sponsorship of public television, even its superior graphic design. He liked people who had breadth as well as depth — chemists who were also musicians, say, or photographers who understood physics. He took very good pictures, too.

That’s particularly noteworthy as Land himself didn’t grow up in an intellectual household and was in fact known to bemoan the dearth of books in his childhood home. His intellectual path was the result of semi-serendipitous meandering: As a youngster, he stumbled upon a copy of the 1911 edition of physicist Robert W. Wood’s Physical Optics, where he became mesmerized by the polarization of light. Then, while at summer camp, he saw a demonstration of a Nicol’s prism — a clear crystal cut at such an angle as to act as a natural polarizer — and, as the saying goes, the rest was history.

Land embodied another essential quality of a true entrepreneur — the ability to spot serendipitous opportunity as it arises as a byproduct to a deliberate effort, or something once ingeniously termed “chance-opportunism” and deemed essential in scientific creativity. Bonanos writes of the science and serendipity behind Polaroid’s rise:

A polarizer is a unique type of filter, and its properties are best explained with an oversimplification that Land himself often used. Waves of light, as they come at you, vibrate in every plane, vertically, horizontally, and at all angles in between. Certain crystal structures can function as gratings, allowing through light that vibrates in just one plane. If you picture the beam of light as a handful of thrown straws, oriented in every direction, the polarizing filter is a picket fence. The only straws that come through are the ones that align with the slots between pickets. Sunlight is also polarized when it bounces off a flat, nonmetallic surface, like a lake or the roadway in front of you, causing glare. Adding a polarizing layer to sunglasses blocks light vibrating in that one plane, wiping out the glare and helping drivers see the road or fishermen spot trout beneath the surface of a stream. Photographers, too, use polarizing filters to even out lighting.


Polarizers rather than pictures would define the first two decades of Land’s intellectual life, and would establish his company and career. Instant photos were an idea that came later on, a secondary business around which his company was completely re-created.

Another seemingly radical distinction that gave Land an edge were his recruiting tactics, specifically with regards to hiring female scientists. After he became close with Clarence Kennedy, an art-history professor at Smith College, Land realized he could scout smart and creative science-inclined women in Smith’s art-history department. He would send them off for a couple semesters’ worth of science courses, producing, as Bonanos puts it, “skilled chemists who could keep up when the conversation turned from Maxwell’s equations to Renoir’s brush strokes.” Inside Polaroid, these cross-disciplinarily gifted women were referred to as Princesses.

The rest of Instant goes on to explore both the science and the cultural mythology behind Polaroid, zooming in on Land’s singular lens on entrepreneurship and extracting from it both an inspired and timeless story of ingenuity, and a cautionary tale of boom-and-bust trajectory, brimming with lessons for modern tech mavericks.

Infographic via 1,000 memories; Edwin Land portrait via History of Science

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14 AUGUST, 2012

How Remix Culture Fuels Creativity & Invention: Kirby Ferguson at TED


From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, or how copyright law came to hinder the very thing it set out to protect.

Remix culture is something I think about a great deal in the context of combinatorial creativity, and no one has done more to champion the popular understanding of remix as central to creativity than my friend and documentarian extraordinaire Kirby Ferguson. So I’m enormously proud of Kirby’s recent TED talk about his Everything is a Remix project, exploring remix culture, copyright and creativity — watch and take notes:

The Grey Album is a remix. It is new media created from old media. It was made using these three techniques: copy, transform and combine. It’s how you remix. You take existing songs, you chop them up, you transform the pieces, you combine them back together again, and you’ve got a new song, but that new song is clearly comprised of old songs.

But I think these aren’t just the components of remixing. I think these are the basic elements of all creativity. I think everything is a remix, and I think this is a better way to conceive of creativity.


American copyright and patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead, these laws and laws around the world use the rather awkward analogy of property. Now, creative works may indeed be kind of like property, but it’s property that we’re all building on, and creations can only take root and grow once that ground has been prepared.

One thing to pay particularly close attention to are the many examples of how liberally and broadly Bob Dylan borrowed from other creators, appropriating, modifying, and building upon their work:

It’s been estimated that two thirds of the melodies Dylan used in his early songs were borrowed — this is pretty typical among folk singers.

Kirby gave his talk shortly before Dylan entered the news not as the perpetrator but as the subject of fabulism, by science writer Jonah Lehrer — a pseudo-scandal on which NPR offered perhaps the only truly thoughtful commentary amidst a sea of blood-thirsty sensationalism:

This is the essence of the popular arts in America: Be a magpie, take from everywhere, but assemble the scraps and shiny things you’ve lifted in ways that not only seem inventive, but really do make new meanings. Fabrication is elemental to this process — not fakery, exactly, but the careful construction of a series of masks through which the artist can not only speak for himself, but channel and transform the vast and complicated past that bears him or her forward.

Certainly, the integrity standards of science journalism and the popular arts can, and likely should, be very different. Nonetheless, this parallel — in which Dylan so clearly build his voice by borrowing and appropriating the ideas of others to his own ends of creative expression — is enough to give one pause.

The additive nature of creativity and innovation is, of course, something both history in general and individual inventors in particular can speak to. Kirby cites Henry Ford, who echoes the story of Marconi and the invention of radio:

Mark Twain, unapologetic as ever, put it best: “All ideas are second-hand.”

For more on remix culture and combinatorial creativity, see Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity and the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas.

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05 JULY, 2012

Freeman Dyson on Tool-Creation, Technology, and What Makes a Scientific Revolution


“In every human culture, the hand and the brain work together to create the style that makes a civilization.”

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, Steve Jobs famously said, “you can only connect them looking backwards.” The same is true of technology and its impact on civilization — thousands of years later, we are able to appreciate the linkage between the products of our mind and the tools we create to further their reach. This is the basic lens of The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolution (public library) by legendary Princeton physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (father of science historian George Dyson), originally published in 1999. Tool-creation has been indispensable to scientific progress, Dyson argues — and has been since the dawn of techne.

Science originated from the fusion of two old traditions, the tradition of philosophical thinking that began in ancient Greece and the tradition of skilled crafts that began even earlier and flourished in medieval Europe. Philosophy supplied the concepts for science, and skilled crafts provided the tools.

Dyson refutes the idea that scientific revolutions are concept-driven, a stance pioneered by Thomas Kuhn in his controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and later endorsed by other theory-driven scientists. Instead, Dyson argues, the art of tool-creation is its relationship to science.

The human heritage that gave us toolmaking hands and inquisitive brains did not die. In every human culture, the hand and the brain work together to create the style that makes a civilization….

Science will continue to generate unpredictable new ideas and opportunities. And human beings will continue to respond to new ideas and opportunities with new skills and inventions. We remain toolmaking animals, and science will continue to exercise the creativity programmed into our genes.

Sole discovery, Dyson asserts, is simply inadequate to account for change. Instead, real, functional projects are the basis of revolutions, implicitly adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

A sustainable project marks the beginning of a new era. An unsustainable project marks the end of an old era.

Lexi Lewtan is an avid reader, writer, and technology nerd. You can find her on geeking out on Twitter and Quora.

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