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NYPL, Mother of Invention

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On quitting his classes at Harvard in 1927, Edwin Land moved to New York and became a regular user of the library’s Science Division. His goal: the manufacture of a polarizing light filter, the basic idea behind Polaroid sunglasses. 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 invention Polaroid, and used the name again when he invented his instant photography. 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 kaleidoscope. Both book and article are still in our collection.

In the 1930s Chester Carlson was a physics graduate in a dull patents job in Manhattan, unhappily married and living with in-laws in Jackson Heights. 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 Phenomena and discovered Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect, published 30 years previously. 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 our 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 we have 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. For even more resources, see our current guide for inventors [attached below].

We know less about the use of this library by Beulah Henry, who appears to be the subject of this 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 in the comments!

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