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Edwin Herbert Land (1909-1991)
Already in the late 1920s, as an undergraduate at Harvard University, Edwin Land conceived and produced the first modern filters to polarize light (patented 1929), and formed a company to market them for use in sunglasses, glare-free automobile headlights, and stereoscopic (i.e., virtual "3-D") photography. But it was through his Polaroid Corporation (founded 1937) that Land was immortalized, for his invention and marketing of instant photography.
Inspired by his three year old daughter, who had asked him why she couldn't see a photo he had taken of her right away, Land created a system of one-step photography (first demonstrated at a meeting of the Optical Society of America in February 1947). Land used the principle of diffusion transfer to reproduce the image recorded by the camera's lens directly onto a photosensitive surface---which now functioned as both film and photo. The Polaroid Land camera (patent #2,543,181) was first offered for sale on November 26th, 1948. Land continued to improve his invention: "Polacolor" film made instant color photos possible in 1963; in 1972, the "SX-70" replaced the wet, peel-apart development process with dry films that developed in light. (Land even created an instant color movie-making system, "Polavision," in 1978; but this never enjoyed the commercial success of his still-photography cameras.)
Land spent his entire adult life experimenting and innovating in the field of optics, from producing recording systems used by the U.S. in World War II to proposing the "retinex" theory of human color perception. Land is among the top inventors who have been granted U.S. patents, with over 500 to his credit. Land's contributions can perhaps best be gauged by the fact that he was awarded the Medal of Freedom---the highest honor granted to civilians in the U.S.