NYPL, Mother of Invention

05/19/2011 01:00 pm ET | Updated Jul 17, 2011

by Michael Wenyon

A Note From The Library

Following up on our Centennial Celebration, we wanted to offer an article from writer Michael Wenyon about how the Library has contributed to some famous inventions throughout the years. You can explore more in our current exhibition Celebrating 100 Years, or learn more about the World's Fair and Chevorlet Pavilion by downloading Biblion: The Boundless Library for iPad.

At the Chrysler Pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, millions of visitors became the first to watch a 3D movie where the audience wore spectacles with polarizing plastic lenses, an invention in which The New York Public Library had a crucial role. Edwin Land, using discoveries he had made more than a decade earlier in books at the Library's Science Division, invented a manufacturing process for the eyeglass's 'polarizing sheet'. For the 3D movie, the polarizing lenses separated movie images from two separate projectors, sending them to either the left or right eyes of the audience, creating a stereoscopic three-dimensional view. 2011-05-19-G91F203_001Fu.jpg

Land had moved to New York on quitting his classes at Harvard in 1927, and became a regular user of The New York Public Library1. His goal: the manufacture of a polarizing light filter, the basic idea behind Polaroid sunglasses and the glasses used for the 3D movie. Between the library and a variety of makeshift labs, he eventually figured out how to embed microscopic crystals of "herapathite" in molten sheets of plastic and align them all in one direction. He named the product Polaroid2, which became the name of his company and later, the name of his instant camera. Land had discovered the identity of the crucial polarizing crystal while reading an 1852 article by the British doctor-scientist William Herapath, itself referenced in a book by Sir David Brewster on the kaleidoscope3. Both book and article are still in the Library's collection.

During the 1930s, Land had tried to persuade the automobile industry and the United States government to fit every automobile with a windshield embedded with a sheet of polarizer oriented one way, coupled with headlights filtered through a pieces of polarizer oriented the other way. Headlights of oncoming cars would then be blocked, or at least dimmed, from the driver's eyes, making it easier to see the road ahead without being dazzled by approaching cars.

2011-05-26-polaroid.jpg Land was ultimately unsuccessful in persuading Detroit to use his polarizing windshields, but Chrysler did commission the 12-minute 3D movie for their pavilion at the 1939 and 1940 World's Fairs, using his company's polarizing eyeglasses. The movie showed mass production at the automaker's Plymouth factory, with three-dimensional car parts floating in space that became magically joined to the chassis4. Stereoscopic 3D movies were popular in the 1950s, and are currently being made again, sometimes now using polarizing screens or electro-optic shutters that use liquid crystals and sheet polarizers within them.

But the largest application of polarizing sheets today is the liquid crystal display, used as a computer monitor or cell phone screen. You are probably looking through a sheet of polarizing film as you read these words.

2011-05-26-XeroxsolidinkColorQube9300Seriesmultifunctionprinterprv.jpg Although it was not displayed at the World's Fair, 1939 was the year that Chester Carlson filed for his patent for the photocopy machine5. During the 1930s Chester Carlson was a physics graduate in a dull patents job in Manhattan, unhappily married and living with in-laws in Jackson Heights6. His escape was the science reading room of The New York Public Library, researching his ideas for a document-copying machine. His breakthrough came when he read the book Photoelectric Phenomena7 and discovered Einstein's paper on the photoelectric effect, published 30 years previously8. Carlson eventually demonstrated his copy machine in Astoria, Queens in 1938. Every photocopier and laser printer made since that time depends on the discovery he made in this library; you may have heard of his company, it is called Xerox.

Both inventors found their breakthroughs in books or journals referring to concepts that were at least 30 years old when they found them, testament to the principle that engineering ideas don't automatically become obsolete, and testament, too, to the value of archiving technical information for the long term.

Also, both inventors were institutionally unaffiliated when they used the library, even though they had each received formal science educations at prestigious universities. In the library they found free, informal access to highly technical information, nobly offered without interest or any idea of receiving compensation. Indeed, to my knowledge, NYPL has not obtained a single penny from either Xerox or Polaroid, or their individual inventors, since they last stepped foot in the place.


The items used by Land and Carlson are still owned by the library. Today the library's technology collection also covers computers, electronics and biotechnology--as well as such archives as The Journal of the Optical Society of America, where Land first published his findings. Perhaps the most wonderful resource now for anyone seeking to resurrect old technologies must be the database Compendex which indexes more than 10 million science and engineering articles, from its earliest entry, in 1884, up to the latest reports from several weeks ago. Look in there and you will find a 19th-century article about using windmills for generating electricity, as well as another published in China this month.

Another active inventor who apparently used The New York Public Library during the 1930s was Beulah Henry, who appears to be the subject of a photograph of an 'unknown inventor' by Alfred Eisenstaedt, taken for Life magazine at the New York Public Library in 1944. Henry invented a bobbinless sewing machine, a new type of parasol and a typing machine that made four copies. She worked in New York from the 1920s to the 1960s. In Eisenstaedt's picture she may be posing next to her doll with spring-loaded arms, or the "Miss Illusion" doll whose eyes could change color and close. We recently found the photograph in the Life digital archive hosted by Google, so it may never have been published in the magazine itself. Although the photograph is currently unattributed in the Life archive, her face is recognizable from contemporary images. If anyone knows more about her use of the library, please let us know!

1. Victor K McElheny, Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land (Reading, Mass: Perseus Books, 1998).

2. Edwin H. Land and Joseph S. Friedman, "Polarizing Refracting Bodies," US Patent 1,918,848, July 1933,

3. David Brewster, The Kaleidoscope, Its History, Theory and Construction with Its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts, 2nd ed. (London: J. Murray, 1858).

4. Victor K McElheny, "Detroit and Hollywood: Three Dimensions," in Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land (Reading, Mass: Perseus Books, 1998), 115.

5. Chester F. Carlson, "ELECTROPHOTOGRAPHY," US Patent 2297691, October 1942,

6. David Owen, Copies in seconds : how a lone inventor and an unknown company created the biggest communication breakthrough since Gutenberg : Chester Carlson and the birth of the Xerox machine (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

7. Arthur Llewelyn Hughes, Photoelectric Phenomena, 1st ed., International series in physics (New York: McGraw Hill book company, inc, 1932).

8. A. Einstein, "Uber einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt," Annalen der Physik 322 (1905): 132-148.

Image of Polarized Sunglasses courtesy of Polaroid.
Image of Xerox Solid Ink Color Quebe 9300 Series Multifunction Printer courtesy of Xerox Corporation.