Edwin Land and the U-2 Spy Plane

Edwin Land - Polaroid Land Camera

Born in May of 1909, Edwin Land lived in Norwich, CT during the formative years of his youth. He was educated at the Broadway School and later garnered the respect and admiration of both his teachers and other students for his extraordinary intellectual capabilities as a student at Norwich Free Academy. His early fascination with the properties of light specifically as it related to optics allowed him to create scientific breakthroughs that eventually led to the creation of the first black and white instant camera for consumers in November 1948. Under his leadership and vision his company the Polaroid Corporation introduced the first instant color film in 1963 and the revolutionary SX-70 instant camera in 1972.

However, behind the scenes during the early 1950’s, Edwin Land was involved in a top-secret government program that was unfolding in parallel to his widely acknowledged scientific achievements and public adulation. After World War II, the United States had come to view the Soviet Union as the primary threat to the more democratic western powers. In an effort to learn more about Soviet military strength and intentions, the U.S. Air Force created Project Lincoln, a committee of experts on aerial surveillance. Edwin Land was appointed to this committee to provide his guidance for the innovative design of an aerial camera that would be able to create very high resolution images at high altitude.

The members of the committee determined that in order to avoid detection the spy plane would need to reach an altitude of 70,000 feet. Fortunately, that plane already existed. Lockheed Aircraft had designed a plane that was essentially a power glider that could reach an altitude of 13 miles and then cut its engine to reduce vibration and glide to a lower elevation while taking a series of stereoscopic photographs. Land, together with Dr. James Baker designed a panoramic high resolution, high altitude camera for the spy plane called the Hycon 73B. The camera recorded everything along the length 2,700-mile route at a width of 125 miles. It was capable of producing 4,000 pairs of stereoscopic photographs per flight.

The first flight of the U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union occurred on July 4, 1956 under the direction of the CIA which maintained oversight of the surveillance program. In response to these flights the Soviet Union began a program to create rocket systems to defend against these surveillance flights. Surveillance flights over the Soviet Union continued without incident until May 1, 1960 when a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a high altitude Soviet missile.

Despite this incident, updated and improved versions of the U-2 spy plane continued to be a powerful surveillance tool for the U.S. military during the remainder of the twentieth century and beyond. Edwin Land’s enduring contributions to this program remain significant to this present day.

To view images of Edwin Land’s revolutionary technological breakthroughs in consumer photography and his work on the U-2 spy plane program visit the collection of historical photographs on the Otis Library website.

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