Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

IBM is the current record-holder for the most U.S. patents with 8,540 (!), but the individual Americans with the most patents through the end of the 20th century were Thomas Edison, with 1084, and Edwin Land, with 535. (On June 30, 2015, Lowell Wood, an astrophysicist, passed Edison as the all-time most prolific American inventor, and he currently holds an astounding 1,761 U.S. patents.) Everyone has heard of Edison, although the fact that he was a vicious antisemite is not well known, but few know about Land, a Jew responsible for major innovations in photography, optics, industry, science education and national science policy.



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Land (1909-1991) is best known as the inventor of the process for instant photography and for the development of the Polaroid Land camera (1947) that revolutionized traditional photography by compressing darkroom processes into an integrated film unit. With the ubiquitous proliferation of digital cameras, cell phones and electronic imaging, it is difficult for anyone under the age of 50 to understand the sheer public incredulity upon experiencing the miracle of a print just one minute after the photograph was taken. When the first instant cameras went on sale in November 1948, the initial stock – at about $90, then about an average weekly wage – immediately sold out; hundreds of thousands of cameras were sold within a few years thereafter, and Land’s Polaroid Corporation became the archetypal science-based industry of its day.

Jewish persecution in Czarist Russia under Tsar Alexander III’s reign of terror led Edwin’s grandparents, Avram and Ella Salmonovitch, to flee Odessa for the U.S., where the family took the name “Land” out of gratitude to G-d for having “landed” them in America, where they and their children, including Edwin’s parents, remained religiously observant all their lives. Although Edwin grew up in an Orthodox home and was bar-mitzvahed, there is little evidence in his life of any involvement in Jewish causes or with the State of Israel. He told his relatives that he had given up Judaism “for business reasons” and he sought to keep his life intensely private, including particularly keeping his Jewish origins obscure. He later told a journalist that he was “trying to live down even the honorable part of my past” and, determined to escape into scientific work, he left his Jewish roots behind.

Some commentators consider Land’s estrangement from Judaism somewhat remarkable, given the Jewish involvement of his family and of many friends and advisors. Louis Silver, Edwin’s lifelong business advisor and lawyer, aided Jewish charities in the United States and Israel throughout his life and helped found Brandeis University; Edwin’s nephew (his sister Helen’s son), who lived half a year in Jerusalem, became a fundraiser for a girl’s orphanage in Israel; and Edwin’s family generally kept up their religious observance and practice. Yet, there is some evidence that at least the rudiments of Edwin’s Jewish roots remained; for example, when a Polaroid colleague advised that he had to leave early to attend a family Seder, Land proceeded to sing the “Four Questions” in perfect Hebrew.

Land’s scientific curiosity and his drive to solve scientific problems were manifest at a very early age. As an early example, he perceived a need to reduce the perils of driving at night and, after studying optics at Harvard and dropping out after a year, he developed polarized glass that solved the problem of how to make headlights stronger while simultaneously preventing blinding the drivers in oncoming traffic. His polarized glass went on to be used for any number of other purposes, including sunglasses, 3D movie spectacles, windows and windshields, and LCD screens.

As such, before he was 40 years old, Land had launched two entirely new industries, sheet polarizers and instant photography, which alone was sufficient to ensure his everlasting fame, but he was far from finished.

Not only was Land one of the world’s greatest, albeit largely unheralded, scientists/inventors/entrepreneurs but he also used his vision of the nexus of art, science and business to found and build the Polaroid Corporation. He began in 1932 by founding his own small company in partnership with a Harvard physics instructor to sell his cheaply-produced polarized glass, which drew keen interest from, among others, General Motors and General Electric. Eastman Kodak became the first customer in 1934 when it purchased polarizer sheets for use as camera filters, and Land’s great ensuing success led him to reorganize his company as the Polaroid Corporation in 1937.

Land vociferously defended his and Polaroid’s patents and, ironically, his most famous high-profile patent-infringement lawsuit was against Kodak. The suit dragged on for over 14 years until a federal court enjoined Kodak from manufacturing and selling patent-infringing products and ordered it to pay $925 million to Polaroid, still the largest award ever paid out to a plaintiff in an American patent infringement case.

During World War II, Land converted Polaroid into a military support company and, among other accomplishments, he went on to invent an altitude finder and flight training machines; improve designs for night vision goggles and Sherman tanks sights; create original designs for the first guided “smart bombs” and heat-seeking bombs; and to innovate “vectography,” a system that, for the first time, took three-dimensional photographs that revealed camouflaged enemy positions and proved invaluable in reconnaissance efforts.

After the war, Land, among other things, developed an optical system for the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute that enabled scientists to observe living human cells in their natural color (1948) and invented a microscope that used light invisible to the human eye for illumination (1953). With the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, he continued to work with the government and the military, working directly with President Eisenhower as head of the Intelligence Section of Ike’s Technological Capabilities Panel, in which capacity he played a leading role in the development of photographic reconnaissance and intelligence gathering efforts. In particular, he developed the optics for the Lockheed U-2 spy plane program; introduced a system for balloon-borne cameras; developed satellite imaging systems and innovations in high-altitude photography; and developed the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. He helped Ike to plan NASA and he also served presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – and was proud to be on the latter’s “enemies list.”

Title page of [Carroll Bernard] Neblette’s Handbook of Photography (7th edition), on which Land has handwritten to David Hubel, a renowned Harvard neurophysiologist who studied the physiology of color vision and conducted extensive research into how nerve cells turn visual stimuli into brain images: “It was always good to know you were reliably and competently behind the scenes – Gratefully – Edwin Land.”
Land’s greatest failure was Polavision, an instant color photographic movie process involving the SX-70 camera and film. Although it was a staggering scientific and technical success, it became a financial disaster when, after Polaroid spent several billion dollars in development, it was trumped by the unfortuitous and virtually simultaneous arrival of videotape and camcorders, which proved to be a cheaper and superior product. [Land was skeptical about the move from photographic to digital images but, as we all know, he was dead wrong about this.] Ironically, Land considered the SX-70 to be his greatest single accomplishment and, even more ironically, he seemed to have been thinking about what ultimately became cell phones decades later when he explained that his goal was for a camera “that would be like a telephone: something that you use all day long . . . something that was always with you.”

Land, who in any event had devoted little attention to corporate management, preferring to devote most of his time to continuing his scientific research and product development, yielded to pressure from Polaroid’s board and retired as Polaroid’s chairman in 1980. With the failure of the SX-70, Wall Street, which had boosted the price of Polaroid shares to ninety times earnings (a record at the time), slashed the stock price 90 percent within a year. The crippled corporation would never recover and it was ultimately forced to file for bankruptcy protection in 2001.

Ansel Adam’s correspondence regarding Polaroid and Land.

Ansel Adams, arguably the greatest nature photographer of all time, met Land in 1948 and, impressed by Land’s work on photographic technologies, and convinced that Polaroid needed to include practicing photographers in its research and development process, proposed that he test Polaroid products. Thus commenced a lifelong business relationship – and friendship – as Adams systematically tested Polaroid films and cameras and sent test photographs to Land with memos in which he recorded exposure details and provided detailed technical analysis. In the February 11, 1982, correspondence exhibited here, Adams expresses his personal esteem for Land and rues Land’s retirement which, he says, left both an important leadership void and a sadly deteriorating Polaroid Corporation:

I know the times are difficult, I hear many rumors (most of which I discount). Never-the-less, I am aware that Polaroid (along with many other Corporations) faces reduced sales and problems of less production. It seems to be in a general malaise. I consider the Administration about the worst in memory and, as I approach eighty, I am disturbed that I cannot do my share in “making things better” . . .

However, since about 1950, I have been associated with Polaroid. I think it is a remarkable organization. It has made a profound effect on photography; Edwin Land is unique in our cultural history and his efforts are evident . . .

The automatic cameras – while constantly progressing in design, function, and saleability – are still of one particular domain of photography. The creative aspects of the medium (which Polaroid has so generously supported) remains, for me, the most important. They are also the most significant aspects when considered in time and history.

Even before his net worth hit half a billion dollars by the late 1960s, Land was an active philanthropist with the particular beneficiaries of his largesse institutions that promoted interdisciplinary studies and improved science pedagogy in the United States. An innovator in science education, his advocacy led the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to institute a formal program to provide direct experience of research to undergraduates (1957), which many universities – including Harvard, which was the recipient of Land’s anonymous $12.5 million donation for that purpose – went on to adopt. He founded and endowed several scientific institutes and, toward the end of the 1960s, helped to create the program of federal assistance to public television and successfully advocate for its adoption. Half a century before the internet, YouTube, and “TED talks,” Land conceived the idea of recording leading professors’ best lectures, which students could go back and listen to again and which could be widely disseminated to the public.

A humanist and proponent of social justice, he was well ahead of his time in giving priority to hiring women – including Helen Maislen, his laboratory assistant whom he later married in 1929 – and African-Americans at a time when it was highly unpopular, and financially risky, to do so. In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, he led Polaroid in the forefront of the affirmative action movement. Beloved by the people and the press, he won a long list of awards, including the Medal of Freedom (1963), National Medal of Science (1968), and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1977).

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Although perhaps best known for his incandescent lamp (1879), Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) remains one of the greatest and most prolific inventors of all time whose inventions include the phonograph, the mimeograph machine, the microphone and the motion picture camera. “The Wizard of Menlo Park” was also one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork to the process of invention and, as such, he is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory. He developed a system of electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses, and factories, a crucial development in the modern industrialized world.

Among Edison’s greatest inventions is the alkaline storage battery. In this very rare and historic June 18, 1924, correspondence on his Edison Laboratory letterhead, the signature evidencing his characteristic “Edison umbrella,” he writes to the president of the Ohio Copper Company of Utah regarding the possible use of a copper cement in the manufacture of batteries:

Edison’s original letter regarding his alkaline storage battery.

I have received your letter of June 17th, in regard to your copper cement. Possibly we might be able to use this if the tin, arsenic, and iron does not interfere. We could not tell, however, except by actual use in batteries and a time test.

If the price is attractive we might start a test lot. At present we use copper scales from rolling mills. Please send sample and price per unit of copper.

Sadly, Edison’s genius and his monumental contributions to the world are marred by his virulent antisemitism. In Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster writes that his father was hired briefly as Edison’s library assistant “only to have the job taken away from him the next day because Edison learned he was a Jew.” In a letter to Isaac Markens, author of the seminal The Hebrews in America (1888), Edison wrote that there are “terrible examples” of Jews in mercantile pursuits; that this is why the “meddling Jew” is so disliked; that he had great hope that, through more exposure to American life, Jews would “cease to be so clannish”; and that being rich is a Jewish “racial characteristic . . . I wish the Jews would all quit making money.” In What Did They Think of the Jews? (1991), Allan Gould writes that

the evidence seems to indicate that Edison shared the Populist notion that Wall Street was dominated by Jews, and it was the Jews in the financial professions whom Edison resented. If Edison was antisemitic, as his notes to automaker Henry Ford indicate, then it appears to be the unique form of the disease “economic anti-Semitism.”

In the 1977 biography, The Man Who Made the Future, Ronald W. Clark explains that:

As early as October 1914, little more than two months after the German armies had invaded France and Belgium, Edison was being reported [by the Dearborn Independent] as stating that one cause of the war had been the commercial rise of Germany, that the Jews had been largely responsible for German business success and that the militarists which govern the country do their bidding. Protests were immediate and loud. Edison tried to explain himself, saying that he had merely wanted to praise Jews for their ability. “However,” said Henry Ford’s biographers in dealing with the incident, “a number of Edison’s letters to Ford and E.G. Liebold [managing editor of the Independent] show a distinct anti-Semitic bias.” There is other evidence. Edison once said that his definition of a successful invention was “something that is so practical that a Polish Jew will buy it” while to a post-war employee he once claimed: “There are lots of bad Jews. Soon as they knew I was going to use a special wax for my cylinder records they hacked up the price on me. But I fooled them – I changed over to celluloid.”

In addition, many of Edison’s short films unabashedly employed antisemitic stereotypes for comedic effect. For example, in Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (1904), a Jewish proprietor who seemingly had performed a lovely act of generosity was merely scheming to increase his business; in Our Hebrew Friends (1907), two stereotypical Jews get into a violent fight and the Jewish merchant bribes the responding police officer, after which they celebrate their cunning; and in Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907), the protagonist successfully commits insurance fraud and, at the end of the film, is unable to kiss his fiancée because his huge nose gets in the way. The synthesized theme underlying these early films is crafty Jews who – legally or illegally – take commercial advantage of innocent people.

There is also evidence that Edison’s financial legacy helped to fuel the Institute for Historical Review, a movement dedicated to denying that the Holocaust ever occurred. Part of Edison’s fortune devolved upon a grandniece, Jean Edison-Farrel who, in turn, willed her money to the IHR. Edison is often cited by the Journal of Historical Review as one of the great men who supported the cause of Holocaust-denial.

However, notwithstanding his antisemitism, Edison was first and foremost a practical businessman. As such – and most ironically, given his characterization of Jews as money-driven – when there was money to be made from Jews, he was not at all reticent in catering to them, particularly since Jews were always great consumers of culture and the arts, including music.


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Exhibited here are two supplements to Edison’s Record Catalogue issued by his National Phonograph Company out of Orange, New Jersey. The first, dated September 1906, features “six new Hebrew selections,” including a selection of solos by famous Jewish tenor Solomon Smulewitz. As the notes on the verso explain:

All of these songs have been selected because of special demands from the public, each composition being very popular among the Hebrews. Mr. Smulewitz, the artist who sings them, is prominent in the musical world. He is the author of about 250 different musical compositions, including three successful operettas. Mr. Smulewitz is a very fine tenor and his voice is especially suitable for Record singing.

Songwriter, lyricist, bard, poet, actor, wedding jester and entertainer, balladeer, and early recording artist, Solomon Shmulewitz-Small (1868-1943) was one of the most gifted and productive early Yiddish composers/performers. His subject matter included Torah tales; Jewish holidays and observances; Jewish history; current events, including Jewish immigration issues; and American patriotism.

The second supplement, dated December 1, 1907, features “12 New Hebrew Selections,” including six songs sung by Smulewitz and another six sung by tenor Kalman Juvelier (1863-1939), all with “orchestra accompaniment.” Born in the Ukraine, Juvelier came to the United States in 1900, where he became a much-beloved Jewish singer and actor who performed chazanut (cantorial works) as part of his recorded repertoire.

Israel Edison-Bell sheetlet (1977).

In 1977, a furor developed over a souvenir sheet featuring Edison (along with Alexander Graham Bell) on a commemorative stamp sheetlet, exhibited here, which the Israeli Postal Authority released for a stamp exhibition in Hong Kong. Being memorialized on an Israeli stamp is a great honor, one that had previously been extended to only four other non-Jews: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Mozart, and Raoul Wallenberg. According to an Israeli spokeswoman, the purpose of the souvenir sheet is to show the world Israel’s “openness to universal themes.” While, indeed, antisemitism sadly endures as a “universal theme,” I am among the many who find an Israeli philatelic salutation to an antisemite unfortunate, inappropriate and, frankly, embarrassing.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].