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Polaroid Goes Bankrupt; Plans to Sell Existing Assets

Economy and Digital Competition Explain Low Sales

By Sandra M. Chung


The Cambridge-based Polaroid Corporation obtained bankruptcy protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Delaware on October 12.

Last June, Polaroid announced that it would lay off 2,000 employees, approximately a quarter of its 8,000-member global workforce. In September, the company reduced health benefits for some of its workers.

Polaroid intends to continue making and shipping its products while it restructures its business operations and finances and searches for buyers for all or parts of the company. Declining profits and growing debt resulting from the increasing popularity of digital cameras and the nationwide economic slump have forced the company to redesign its operations and pare down employment.

Polaroid’s founder, Edwin H. Land, dropped out of Harvard University in 1926 to develop commercial applications for light polarization. In 1937, he formed the Boston-based Polaroid corporation, which specialized in the use of polarization technology in such items as glasses, lamps, ski goggles, and windows. In 1939, the corporation moved from Boston to Cambridge.

Land drove creation of UROP

Land held the title of Visiting Institute Professor from 1956 until his death in 1991. In 1957, Land’s famous “Generation of Greatness” speech for the Arthur D. Little chemistry lecture helped to inspire the creation of UROP.

“I believe each incoming freshman must be started at once on his own research project if we are to preserve his secret dream of greatness and make it come true,” Land said.

In 1968 Land established a trust fund and dedicated its income to educational development at MIT. The fund paid for the development of the UROP program, established 1969.

Land’s influence and support of undergraduate research also lives on in the Eloranta Undergraduate Research Fellowships. The fellowships were a 1969 gift from Land to the Institute in memory of Peter J. Eloranta ‘68, a onetime Polaroid employee. They are awarded yearly to students to pursue creative or exceptional study projects that they design or direct themselves.

Digital technology hurt Polaroid

Stephen A. Benton ’63, Allen Professor of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, worked at Polaroid from 1961, when he was still an MIT undergraduate, until 1985. Benton worked closely with Land until his retirement in 1982.

Benton attributed at least part of Polaroid’s troubles to Land’s departure.

“I wish I could say that things would be different today if Dr. Land were still running Polaroid, but my guess is that the days of instant photography have simply run out,” Benton said. “However, Land might have been able to reinvent the company again, as he did at the end of World War Two, when it went from an optics company to a photography company.”

Benton noted, however, that Land “really was resistant to the digital revolution.”

Company maintains MIT ties

Polaroid is an industrial member of the Leaders for Manufacturing, which develops strategies to improve the performance of manufacturing operations. The company is also involved in the Center for Transportation Studies Affiliates Program in Logistics, which researches ways to improve educational programs for management of companies in the private sector.

Polaroid is also a corporate sponsor for the annual Sloan Challenge, in which teams compete to solve fictitious business problems.

Polaroid had innovative history

Land’s emphasis on research and development established Polaroid’s reputation as a center for innovation and invention. Throughout World War II, Polaroid developed new military technology under a U.S. government contract. Some of the company’s wartime inventions included infrared filters, heat-seeking missiles fitted with miniaturized computers, and target finders.

Land’s most popular invention was his development of instant photography.

The company’s financial woes have forced Polaroid to cut down on its Cambridge presence by selling two of its offices in Kendall Square. Since 1999, Polaroid Corporate Headquarters have been located at a distinctive office building at 784 Memorial Drive. The building in Kendall Square which formerly served as the center of the company’s operations was demolished in January of 2000.

Later that year, Polaroid sold the Memorial Drive office building to Bulfinch Companies, a Newton, Massachusetts-based real estate development company. Polaroid continues to lease its Cambridge office space from Bulfinch.