Edwin Land and Steve Jobs: Masters of Art and Science

What I Learned From the Polaroid's Founder Who Happened to Be the Apple CEO's Inspiration

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Since his passing, there have been many comparisons of Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison, who has more patents than anyone else-before or since. But with the exception of an excellent article by Christopher Bonanos in The New York Times, almost none of the articles and obituaries on Jobs have noted the striking similarities between him and the person with the second highest number of patents, Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid and inventor of instant photography. Nor have these memorials remarked on the fact that Jobs modeled much of his approach to innovation and his role as CEO on Land, who in many ways foreshadowed Jobs' enormous success although never reached the heights that Jobs achieved.

It was my privilege to have worked at Polaroid in the early 1980s as VP-worldwide advertising. I arrived at the company just after Edwin Land had been forced out in a palace revolution for his championship of Polavision, an instant movie film and forerunner of video that had failed in test market. As part of my initial learning, I asked permission of Polaroid's Chairman to visit Dr. Land, and it was granted. It turned out that mine was the first official visit by a company employee since he had left the company he had founded.

I met Dr. Land in his laboratory on Main Street in Cambridge, Mass., a building that he had purchased from Polaroid and the same building (not a coincidence) from which Alexander Graham Bell had sent the first transatlantic cablegram. I spent the entire day with him, and the experience remains one of the highlights of my professional and personal life.

In addition to describing the origins of the company, his primary invention of instant photography and his current experiments, he talked about the tenets by which he led the company. It was these tenets and the deep emotional conviction behind them that made the greatest impression on me. Three were most important to me, and all three were tenets that Steve Jobs also followed.

The first was Dr. Land's belief that a "true business," which I understood to mean a successful business, should be the "intersection of art and science." He explained that everything he did or wanted the company to do needed to reflect and embody this intersection. Not only did this extend to the design of Polaroid's products and the culture of the company, it also extended to advertising. That's why to introduce the elegant SX-70 camera, which incorporated the launch of integral instant color film (single print, self-developing, no peeling paper), the spokesperson in the advertising was Laurence Olivier, the renowned British actor who had never before been in a television commercial. At Apple under Steve Jobs, it has been about the intersection of art and science in every facet of every aspect of the business.

The second tenet I learned from Dr. Land was that "the ideal business is composed of managers and dreamers, and it is the responsibility of the former to protect the latter." The dreamers, of course, are the innovators who disrupt the established order and in fact provide the fuel for capitalism and value creation in a free enterprise environment. Land himself sometimes had to be the dreamer (as did Jobs), but he recognized (as did Jobs) that it often took multiple dreamers to bring about a great invention. He also knew that a leader has to protect those dreamers and ensure that his managers do so also, especially in established companies where the foundational principle is usually one of continuity, not one of discontinuity, which is the hallmark of an innovator. At the time of our meeting, I did not fully appreciate the importance of what he was saying, but over the years I have come to learn how crucially important it is to have dreamers on your team and to protect them.

The third tenet I learned from Dr. Land was "when the facts come home to roost and they are not what you expected, reach out and embrace them anyway." This was the scientist in him speaking. He did not expect everything to work all the time. This is the nature of experimentation. You fail, you learn why and then you try again. You do not hide your failures or mistakes. You embrace them so you can move forward smarter next time and raise the success odds. Not every Apple product was a success and Jobs made mistakes, but he acknowledged the misses and, more importantly, learned from them. He did not dwell on them and was always moving forward, and in the last 10-15 years of his life had so honed his approach that his success rate was just about perfect.

Edwin Land and Steve Jobs seemed to be very private men in many ways, but their humanity and authenticity were very much evident. Both were autocratic perfectionists, but in pursuit of higher-order goals. Both were consummate showmen, unveiling new products on stage at annual meetings, analyst meetings and customer events. Both were great innovators and great marketeers. Both built organizations and companies that had profound impact on technology and society.

Unfortunately, Land did not get the opportunity to transition Polaroid to a successful post-founder future and it faded away. However, what he did do, perhaps unknowingly, was to inspire a smart young man named Steve Jobs by serving as a role model in how to create a truly great and successful company. Although the jury will be out for a number of years, my bet is that if Apple continues to follow Edwin Land's wisdom as embedded by Steve Jobs, it will endure and prosper.

Carl Johnson is the non-executive Chairman of the Board of Nautilus, Inc., leader in home fitness equipment

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