Instant-gratification photography, embodied by smartphone-app sensations like Hipstamatic and Instagram, would never have existed without the imagination of Polaroid’s founder Edwin Land. Land’s first major achievement was the development of a synthetic polarizing filter in 1929, which blocked light waves parallel to the filter’s polarization (either horizontal or vertical), thereby dramatically reducing glare. The Polaroid business, established by Land in 1937, initially focused on other optical products like sunglasses, camera filters, window glass, and even headlights.

By 1939, the company created a 3D film-viewing system using two projectors with polarized filters. The new technology publicly debuted with a promotional film for Chrysler at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which was a wild success, garnering more than 150,000 views during its first two months. Soon after, Polaroid joined the war effort and focused production on glare-reducing goggles, gun-sights, and telescopes for the U.S. military.

While on vacation in 1943, a request from Land’s three-year old daughter to look at the photos he had just taken turned his thoughts toward photography. Land directed Polaroid’s team of scientists to begin working on a process for developing a negative and positive image simultaneously. Their finished product relied on chemical-release pouches or pods, which would rupture as the exposed frame passed through the camera’s internal rollers. Reagent chemicals would then be evenly spread across the film’s surface and initiate the development process.

Polaroid’s first instant-developing film camera, the Land Camera Model 95, was launched in 1948. The 95 physically resembled other cameras of the time, with a leather-clad body and a folding black bellows that extended out in front. Its magical film created sepia-toned images that were revealed after a few minutes of developing by peeling a thin negative layer from the positive print. Within two years the company released a black-and-white version of the film, and a more complicated color format was launched in 1963. For each of these early films, the Eastman Kodak Company produced the negative portion, while Polaroid manufactured the positives and assembled the two parts.

With the release of the SX-70 in 1972, Polaroid switched to a new “integral” film style, a huge hit among amateur photographers. This new “Time-Zero” film required no separation of negative from positive and was automatically ejected after exposure, allowing users to watch their prints develop immediately. The slim rectangle of leather and chrome, which resembled an elegant cigarette lighter more than a camera, was as much a fashionable accessory as a photographic tool.

In 1976, the company’s largest competitor, Kodak, introduced its own instant camera series with the EK-4 and EK-6, and was promptly sued for patent infringement by Polaroid. Though the lawsuit dragged on for years, Kodak was eventually forced to discontinue its instant-camera production in 1985.

Land continued to lead the company until an expensive pet project to design an instant 8mm home-movie camera, called Polavision, failed miserably after its release in 1977. Polav...

Although the name Polaroid was synonymous with “instant camera” by the 1990s, growing consumer preference for digital technologies meant a shrinking market for the company’s film cameras. In 2008, Polaroid announced it would no longer make film-based products in order to focus its efforts on digital cameras and printers. By 2010 however, the Impossible Project, an initiative organized by 10 former Polaroid employees, began producing new film for Polaroid’s 600 and SX-70 cameras at a closed Polaroid factory in Enschede, Netherlands. Thanks to them, today's instant-photo enthusiasts can continue to enjoy Polaroid’s classic analog cameras.

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