176 years ago today, August 19, 1839

by Alden Cole on August 19, 2015 · 0 comments

“You grow up the day you have the first real laugh at yourself.” – Ethel Mae Blythe Barrymore (15 Aug 1879 – 18 Jun 1959)

On 19 August 1839, the French government presented to the world free (with the de facto exception of Great Britain) a gift that has transformed the way we see ourselves – photography. Below an abridged history of its development as a b&w medium, extracted from WikiPedia’s lengthy article, leaving out lots of details that would be fascinating primarily to chemists; plus omitting the whole section on the development of color photography, which was actually earlier than you’d think. For those interested, the full article can be viewed at:

DumpsterDivers:CakeCuttingAnd it’s moments like the cake-cutting-ceremony from a recent Dumpster Diver meeting aka pool party, pictured at left (with friends Diane Keller, Simone Spicer, Neil Benson, George Felice, and Kate Mellina in attendance), that make me grateful to those 19th century visionary Frenchmen for bequeathing us with such a mesmerizing gift 176 years ago. Unscripted and unrehearsed, this candid slice-of-life photo orchestrated by “Unexpected Philadelphia” friends Kate Mellina and her photographer husband Dave Christopher, in hostess-with-the-mostest Ann Keech’s beautiful dining room, with myself about to slice and dice a birthday cake, reveal me for the clown I am, at last! If I’d figured this out earlier I might have made a career in the circus. Perhaps there’s still time if vaudeville experiences a revival? Stand up comedy?? Anyway, read on:

5256WP“Photography is the result of combining several different technical discoveries. Long before the first photographs were made, Chinese philosopher Mo Ti and Greek mathematicians Aristotle and Euclid described a pinhole camera in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. In the 6th century AD, Byzantine mathematician Anthemius of Tralles used a type of camera obscura in his experiments. Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) (965 in Basra – c. 1040 in Cairo) studied the camera obscura and pinhole camera. Albertus Magnus (1206–80) discovered silver nitrate; and three hundred years later Georges Fabricius (1516–71) discovered silver chloride. Daniel Barbaro (1513-1570) described a diaphragm in 1568. In 1694 Wilhelm Homberg (1652-1715) described how light darkened some chemicals (photochemical effect). In 1760 the novel Giphantie by the French author Tiphaigne de la Roche (1729–1774) described what could be interpreted as photography [early science fiction?].

Garden5.18.15WP“Around the year 1800, Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) made the first known attempt to capture an image in a camera obscura by means of a light-sensitive substance. In 1816 Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), continuing Wedgwood’s experiments and using paper coated with silver chloride, succeeded in photographing the images formed in a small camera, but the photographs were negatives, darkest where the camera image was lightest and vice versa. Niepce, in collaboration with the younger Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), refined the process enough to be the one credited with taking the first true photograph in 1826/27. On Niepce’s death in 1833, Daguerre inherited his mentor’s notes and continued his own chemical experiments, making the critical discoveries which allowed for the birth of commercial photography in late 1838. On 7 January 1839, this first complete practical photographic process was announced at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, and the news quickly spread. At first, all details of the process were withheld and specimens were shown only at Daguerre’s studio, under his close supervision, to Academy members and other distinguished guests. Arrangements were made for the French government to buy the rights in exchange for pensions for Niépce’s son and Daguerre, and to present the invention to the world (with the de facto exception of Great Britain) as a free gift. Complete instructions were published on 19 August 1839. Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) had also developed a method of photography but delayed announcing it, and thus was not recognized as its inventor.

1733.1WPMeanwhile back in merrie old England William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), was working in his own chemistry lab, knowledgeable of Daguerre’s experiments, and trying to perfect his own process. In 1839, the same year Daguerre’s invention was rocking the world, Talbot discovered the missing ingredient he was looking for, thanks to the work of polymath John Herschel (1792-1871), allowing him to develop the calotype negative, which revolutionized photography. “Unlike a daguerreotype, which could only be copied by rephotographing it with a camera, a calotype negative could be used to make a large number of positive prints by simple contact printing. The calotype had yet another distinction compared to other early photographic processes, in that the finished product lacked fine clarity due to its translucent paper negative. This was seen as a positive attribute for portraits because it softened the appearance of the human face.” The invention of workable negatives on glass was developed over the next decade; various further refinements continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with even more amazing innovation in the 21st, perfecting a technology that has revolutionized our world and self-perceptions.

1691.1WPAmong the lesser known developments which contributed to photography’s success: in 1839, John Herschel made the first glass negative, but his process was difficult to reproduce. Slovene Janez Puhar (1814-1864) invented a process for making photographs on glass in 1841; it was recognized on June 17, 1852 in Paris by the Académie Nationale Agricole, Manufacturière et Commerciale. In 1847, Nicephore Niépce’s cousin, the chemist Niépce St. Victor (1805-1870), published his invention of a process for making glass plates with an albumen emulsion; the Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia – William (1807-1874) and Frederick (1809-1879) and Bostonians John Adams Whipple (1822-1891) and William Breed Jones also invented workable negatives-on-glass (crystallotypes) in the mid-1840s. Also in 1847, Count Sergei Lvovich Levitsky (1819-1898) designed a bellows camera that significantly improved the process of focusing. This adaptation influenced the design of cameras for decades and is still found in use today in some professional cameras. In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857) invented the collodion process. In 1881, Herbert Bowyer Berkeley (1851-1890) revealed his own discoveries from experimenting with collodion emulsions. In 1854 Roger Fenton (1819-1869) and Philip Henry Delamotte (1821-1889) both helped popularize the new way of recording events; the first by his Crimean war pictures, the second by his record of the disassembly and reconstruction of The Crystal Palace in London. And on it goes…

0275.2WPUltimately, the photographic process came about primarily from a series of refinements and improvements in the first 20 years, prior to our Civil War, which was recorded photographically as no war had been before. Then in 1884 George Eastman (1854-1932), of Rochester, New York, developed dry gel on paper, or film, to replace the photographic plate so that a photographer no longer needed to carry boxes of plates and toxic chemicals around. In July 1888 Eastman’s Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest”. Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others. In 1901 photography became available for the mass-market with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie. The rest is history…

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