WWII and Cold War

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

by F.W. Campbell, F.R.S.†

Even before Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941), the Polaroid team were thinking well ahead on how to help the Allies and they gave years of advice and service to the US Government over a very wide field of applications. Early contributions were infrared polarizers, heat-stable filters, dark adaptation goggles for night-time fighting and the polarizing ring sight.

In the 1950s Land’s team designed the first of the high-altitude optical surveillance systems, first in the U2 plane and later in satellites, thus helping to maintain military balance and the Cold War peace, which ended with Gorbachev and the destruction of the Berlin Wall (November 1989).

To design a high-quality aerial camera lens requires millions of iterative high-precision calculations, and Land, working with James Baker of Harvard, was able to achieve this using one of the early computers. The camera was so good that the vibrations from a plane’s power unit degraded the resolution. The Lockheed U2 spy plane was a power glider that climbed rapidly to a very high altitude (13 miles); the pilot then switched off the power unit and glided to a lower altitude as the sequence of stereoscopic photographs were taken.

The first flight took place on 4 July 1956. This was such a threat to the USSR that they rushed to develop a high-altitude rocket to destroy it. The West was staggered to learn that the East’s rocket development was so advanced when the pilot (Gary Powers) and his U2 were paraded in Red Square to prove the point in May 1960.

Land did much more than developing the U2 camera -- he also helped to design the plane itself. For example, Land and the plane’s designer, Kelly Johnson, were discussing the problems of high-speed, high-altitude flight. They combined two severe problems into an elegant solution. At the desired altitude, the ambient temperature was sufficiently low to increase the viscosity of the fuel, creating fuel-line problems. Furthermore, the friction of the atmosphere on the leading edge of the wing caused it to overheat. Land and Johnson routed the fuel along the wing edge so as to preheat the fuel and, at the same time, cool the wing. As one will learn later, Land was not only a wizard in optics; each of his cameras contained a wealth of ingenious mechanical and electronic parts, albeit hidden from the user.

Land told me, with a chuckle, that he managed to convince golfing President (1953-61) Eisenhower to support the U2 project by describing his new camera's point-spread-function in terms of detecting a golf ball at 2000 yards, rather than in seconds of arc (4 sec). A golfer can detect a golf ball with difficulty at about 150 yards (60 sec).

In 1963, E.H. Land was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1988 his work for the USA national security service was honoured with the W.O. Baker Award of the Security Affairs Support Association. The Award stated: "It was he whose genius in photography made it possible to conceive a reconnaissance system of extraordinary power [the U2] which he proposed to President Eisenhower, who accepted his recommendation that its development be undertaken. The optics and other features of those original designs became the foundation of advanced systems in use today."