Why Boston?

While not an official biography, the following is reprinted with the kind permission of the Royal Society.

by F.W. Campbell, F.R.S.†

The Polaroid Corporation was founded in 1937 and located in Boston, New England, where there were very many other optical, camera and film companies. For example, the Harvard physician Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes, M.D. (1809-94), invented in 1851 his portable stereoscope. It was handheld and the two photographs from the two cameras were placed side by side on a card and viewed through two lenses, incorporating prisms to facilitate the divergence of the two eyes. (It was based on the principle of David Brewster (1781-1868, F.R.S. 1815).) Holmes collaborated with a Boston photographer, Joseph L. Bates. For the next century photographers travelled the globe with their stereo cameras recording in three dimensions the Wonders of the World. It developed into a popular parlour pastime of great educational value for parents and their children. The Holmes stereoscope was inexpensive and boxes of photographs could be hired from a local library. Each box contained a very full and accurate description of the country and its culture.

In 1937 Land and his co-inventor, Joseph Mallory, designed the vectograph for creating 3-D images for a wide range of applications. The vectograph could superimpose the two views of a stereoscopic picture on a single sheet of film. It is still extensively used in aerial-photography and satellite reconnaissance. If the two photographs are taken far enough apart, a molehill can be turned into a small mountain by exaggerating the third dimension, using the principle of stereoscopy. Land’s vectography was used to survey the French coast in preparation for the Normandy invasion by UK and USA forces on D-Day (6 June 1944). Maps showing suitable hiding places from the direct fire of the enemy could be supplied. This exaggerated stereoscopy is the ultimate in anti-camouflage warfare. History may show that the technology was also used in the Gulf War (January 1991); much of the battlefield was among featureless sand dunes: hence the operation was coded ‘ Desert Storm’.

In the 1970s the quartz-crystal watch became popular owing to its accurate time-keeping and low cost compared with mechanical versions. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) were used to display the time, but they used a lot of power and battery replacements were frequent, even when a switch was provided to view the time intermittently; a risky action if one was driving. Using Polaroid, the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) was then introduced; the power requirement dropped to almost zero. Today, many portable computers use this type of display.

Boston contained a wealth of talent and Land could recruit and train almost anyone he wished and develop their talent to the maximum. It was important to Land to situate his business activities in an intensely active scientific environment that included most areas of science. Whenever anyone asked him ‘Where is Polaroid?’, he replied ‘Between Harvard and MIT’.

* CORRECTION * Paragraph Two *   The co-inventor of the vectograph is incorrectly named as Joseph Mallory. The correct name is Joseph Mahler.