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This book contains the most detailed information I have seen assembled
in one volume about the life of Dr. Edwin "Din" Land, founder of
Polaroid Corporation. Although I long have read public accounts of
Dr. Land's work, this book greatly added to my knowledge.
For
those who would like to understand the rise and fall of Polaroid and
its stock price over several decades from 1937 through 1980, this book
makes fascinating reading about some of the do's and don't's of
running a high technology company that depends on developing new
technologies and an on-going stream of innovative products.
If you
want to understand the techniques employed by Dr. Land to make
scientific breakthroughs, there are many insights here into his method
of goal-oriented empiricism. Interestingly, it parallels the
approaches used by Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor of the
20th century. Unfortunately, Dr. Land left little in the way of
writings to draw on other than patent applications and speeches, so
these insights are limited primarily to recollections by colleagues.
On the other hand, the empirical approach is often guided by instinct
based on experience, which is hard to capture. Most scientific
thinkers dislike empiricism, so those who use this method can expect
many rebukes . . . as Dr. Land received in his work on the nature of
color perception.
Those who want to understand the scientific
breakthroughs that Polaroid made will probably come away confused
unless they already have a great knowledge of optics and chemistry
related to photography. I learned a great deal from the book, but
would have liked to learn more. I graded the book down one star for
this weakness.
If you want a fascinating, new look into the
emerging arms race with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, there is much
interesting material here about Dr. Land's role as a national advisor
on defense surveillance.
I was a guest at a dinner hosted by
Dr. Land in the mid 1960s during which he demonstrated his new
technology of instant color photography...His good humor,
generous attitude toward his guests, and his sincere desire to
transform the world, however, left me with a more profound lesson --
seeing much more potential for what a company can be than I would
otherwise have had. Dr. Land explained his vision that night in terms
of releasing the human spirit and encouraging all of us to create and
appreciate more beauty. Although glimpses of this side of Dr. Land
come through in the book, they are overshadowed by the overall theme
of a flawed genius.
I dislike books that argue for flaws in
geniuses. That approach serves to make them more human, but not in a
way that makes us appreciate them or their good points. Geniuses are
by their nature obsessed by their work, and their personal quirks can
be quite negative. ... By the standards of 20th century geniuses,
Dr. Land was a regular guy. In fact, the extent to which he retained
his humanity is part of his greatness.
I think an alternative
explanation to the one in this book of Dr. Land's limitations as a
leader is entirely possible and appropriate. Whenever he was engaged
in endeavors where strong leaders were involved as colleagues or
partners (such as on national defense issues), he was astonishingly
effective. Whenever he was totally given his head, he sometimes
strayed into areas where his vision exceeded the true opportunity.
Clearly, his talent as a technical problem solver vastly exceeded his
talent as an evaluator of product potential.
The story of
Polaroid's rise and fall as depicted here could just as easily be
rewritten as the story of a board of directors and financiers who did
not do their job of providing limits. For example, when Polaroid was
originally taken public in 1937, the investment bankers granted
Dr. Land a 10 year period of total control through a voting trust.
Although every company founder would like such control, that's simply
a bad idea. Management has to be and feel accountable...His authority
seems to me to have been much greater than that normally granted to a
CEO in taking a new product forward....Hopefully, a future book will
look at the fascinating governance challenges and issues related to
being on the board of a company led by a scientific genius who has
provided most of the company's historic value added.
After you
have finished reading and thinking about the fascinating issues in
this book, I suggest that you consider what you would like your legacy
to be. Then, consider what mistakes you will have to avoid in order
to accomplish that legacy. How can others help you overcome your
weaknesses to accomplish more?
Be willing to insist on the
impossible, when it's the right thing to do. You can do it!
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on April 13, 2001
Insisting on the Impossible by Victor K. McElheny is a fascinating account of the life of Edwin Land. While this 510 page book may not get the Pulitzer Prize for literature, it is nevertheless an interesting study of a genius who established an empire but was also responsible for much of its financial troubles. This book is often being criticized for its lack of good structure and difficulty in following the story. However, to my knowledge, it is the most complete account, in a single book, of the life and activities of Dr. Edwin Land and his Polaroid Corporation. The book is organized in chapters that at times seem to have little connection to each other. Perhaps this is the result of a 30-year research and notes on the topic taken by its author. Some of the chapters may not appeal, or be understood, by all readers because of their technical background. On the other hand, one can skip certain chapters without missing or diminishing from the rest of the story. For example, the development of the polarizer sheet will fascinate those interested in stereoscopic photography, while the heavy chapters on the chemistry of photography will appeal to anyone who has ever tried to understand how light is captured and converted to an image on film and paper. The chapters on Land's involvement in the highest military and national secrets as an advisor to Eisenhower, give a interesting glimpse on high-tech spying and are relevant today as well.
Finally, it is a story of a man who changed the world around him and others because of his passion for science and technology. It is quite possible that for Dr. Land, the impossible simply took longer to achieve.
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on May 17, 2000
I rarely write a review before I have completed a text, but am 250 pages into this book and wanted to warn as many others as possible. This book is clearly the weakest of the Sloan Technology Series to date for a number of reasons.
The author frequently delves into ridiculous levels of detail about trivial events, and then glazes over larger technical issues. There is no in depth explanation of the chemical and physical explanations which enabled Land to develop Polaroid into a successful company. There is no rhyme or reason to the flow of the text, and it appears largely to follow the thought stream of the notes that the author used to put the text together. There is almost no quality treatment of the business aspects of Polaroid, the author making passing references when it so suits him.
This is a very thick book, which is quite laborious to read. Unfortunately, the thickness does not translate into quality, or even quantity, of useful information located within.
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on January 29, 2014
I purchased a copy for my boyfriend for Christmas and he loved it. He works at a successful tech start-up (now a major corporation) and he is into entrepreneurial, technology and innovation things. He likes books that are popular with techies age 25-45. If you enjoy books about Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, etc., this is a book you will enjoy. This is the definitive biography of Edwin Land and Polaroid, the best of all the biographies out there. Full disclosure, one of my relatives worked with Edwin Land very closely (and is featured inside this and other books about Polaroid), so our family also appreciate how accurate the book was in describing all the key players in the Polaroid story.
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on November 8, 2013
Edwin Land must have been quite a person, who didn't turn into a railroad robber baron. The book is written on several levels. If you are of a scientific bent, this book will reward you. If you just want to know the history it will deliver it, but will swamp you a little with the technical details. The sense of pulling back the curtain on OZ is here without the tabloid view. It was nice to get my memories straight too. I have seen the sepia print photos as well as growing up when black & white and later color instant photos came into existence. As an adult I owned and still have a Spectra system camera. I remember the Kodiak TV ads for their instamatic cameras. I was sadden to read how this once great company lost it's vision and visonary and was finally driven into extinction by profit-only people.
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on April 11, 2011
This is a very detailed book on Edwin Land. I give it 5 stars because it will probably stand as the most complete biography of Land that will ever be written. Unfortunately, it is NOT particularly easy to read. I agree with many of the negative reviewers about the lack of illustration and wordiness of it. However, you can pick up a used copy for practically the cost of shipping, skim through it, and still get more than your moneys worth.
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on December 8, 2000
This book should be a bestseller - to every journalism school as a case study of "when good journalists become bad authors". It reads like a collected series of author notes strung badly together. This writer should have never ventured past his skill set.
Page after page of detailed notes about chemical and optical process (more than likely lifted straight out of someone's lab notebooks) without a SINGLE diagram. None, zero, zilch. Can you imagine an entire book on Poloroid without a single explanatory diagram?!
In a potentially gripping human story there are no insights about the classic American conflict of what happens to an entrepreneur and his company when he misses the next market. No depth of character.
I forced myself to finish the book. Learned some interesting outlines of Land's life. It could have be covered in a New Yorker article.
Worthwhile bibliography - most of the insights were from these source materials.
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on January 21, 2015
The author originally approached Edwin Land to write his biography. Dr. Land deflected him by hiring him into Polaroid for a couple of years to write the history of the SX-70 camera program instead. But the author cleverly managed to write both at the same time. I worked at Polaroid for more than three decades, talked with Mr. McElheny, and can confirm that "Insisting on the Impossible" is a good account of what the company and its leader were all about.
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on December 15, 2002
It's rare to read an involving account of a business leader who managed to keep his dignity and idealism intact whilst being phenomenally successful, but that's exactly what this book is.
The book not only covers Edwin Land's major technological achievements in thorough detail, but gives one a vivid feel for his visionary and practical genius that is more affirming and motivating than a dozen Robbins and Covey tomes. Land was not only prodigiously creative but also persuasively, passionately articulate with almost a Victorian missionary zeal about everything he did, and Victor McElheny's ability to balance prose and technical detail does his subject justice.
The organisation of the book into sections concentrating upon aspects of Land's work, rather than a strict historical narrative, does make sense considering the depth with which McElheny covers each topic, whether it's the political maneuverings behind the U2 project, negotiations with Detroit carmakers about polarized headlights, or colour film chemistry. It may not be considered good journalism to do it this way, but then again a "good journalist" would probably have jettisoned much of the detail so crucial to Land's work and concentrated on petty foibles, frustrations and conflicts far more than McElheny has-and McElheny's approach is ultimately more effective.
Where the book could have been better is in editing and rounding off some of the sections-for example, while there is excellent coverage of Land's involvement with classified intelligence projects under President Eisenhower, there is nothing about his subsequent working relationships with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, let alone his falling out with Nixon. Likewise there is poor coverage of Polaroid's innovations after the introduction of colour film and before the development of the SX-70 system, such as the introduction of packfilm and the world's first transistor-controlled shutter. Yet McElheny inexplicably finds room for a whole page listing the genealogy of Land's cousins!
Nonetheless, the criticisms above are strictly of the variety once described by P. J. O'Rourke as "Sharon Stone has ugly toes"-unless you are unhealthily pedantic about such things, the overall package is still well worth checking out.
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on December 17, 1998
I found Insisting on the Impossible to reflect the authors dedication to producing a biography that provides both inspiration, and rigourous historical treatment of one of most innovative scientists, and business leaders of the century. This book required a profound understanding of Edwin Land and his times, as well as what would make it a fascinating read for anyone interested in building a business based on radical innovation today. It was clearly written as a labor or love
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