Who inspired Steve Jobs? Edwin H. Land, co-founder of Polaroid

Thu, Oct 13, 2011

Apple History, Featured, News

It’s been common, and well deserved, to see obituaries and tributes to Steve Jobs compare the Apple co-founder to Thomas Edison, perhaps the most esteemed inventor in history. That’s all well and good, but Christopher Bonanos of the New York Times points out an interesting fact: Jobs wasn’t enamored with Edison. Rather, he looked to another famed inventor with and awe and for inspiration – Edwin H. Land.

Edwin H. Land co-founded Polaroid and made a number of significant advancements in the field of photography. He’s obviously most famous for the Polaroid instant camera which enabled users to develop photos just 60 seconds after taking them, though he also is credited for developing inexpensive filters for polarizing light along with a host of other inventions that helped shape photography for future decades.

Perhaps it was because Land’s work was more recent, and therefore tangible, that Jobs gravitated towards Land. But either way, Jobs deep respect for Land elicited praise that one seldom heard from the late Apple CEO. The two icons, not so surprisingly, were also exceedingly similar.

They were both college dropouts who were as concerned with art as they were with technology. Indeed, they often looked at the two fields as being one and the same, which is why both were notorious for obsessing over small details and aesthetics that most were inclined to ignore or, perhaps, didn’t even notice.

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.

Bonanos, who is currently writing a book about the history of Polaroid, relays a Steve Jobs interview from 1985 where he heaped praise upon Landis.

“The man is a national treasure,” Jobs said. “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.’

After relaying that story to Jobs, Jobs recounted a similar story when he was working on the Macintosh.

“Yeah, that’s exactly the way I saw the Macintosh”, Jobs explained. “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.”

This sentiment of course echoes Steve Jobs’ own opinion of market research who strongly felt that consumers don’t know what they want aside from better versions of what they already have.

“We do no market research. We don’t hire consultants”, Jobs once said. “The only consultants I’ve ever hired in my 10 years is one firm to analyze Gateway’s retail strategy so I would not make some of the same mistakes they made [when launching Apple’s retail stores]. But we never hire consultants, per se. We just want to make great products.”

via NY Times


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