March 7 - Happy Birthday, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Posted on March 7, 2018

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented photography?

Wasn't that some other French guy, some guy named Daguerre, who invented photography?

Actually, like a lot of things, it depends on how you define invented...and photography. Like everything else, photography has been a series of inventions and innovations - so far, an endless series - each increasing our ability to capture images for later enjoyment.

We use the word camera to mean a device for recording images as photographs, films, or digital signals. But it used to mean a round chamber or room...And one of uses of the word was the phrase camera obscura.

Which meant "darkened room."

Because light travels in straight lines,
the images formed by light traveling
through a small hole into a darkened
room were always upside down.
Ancient Chinese and Greeks invented the camera obscura, which allowed images to be seen within a darkened room. The images entered the room through a tiny hole or, in some cases, a single lens. 

Artists sometimes traced the images formed in a
camera obscura. Of course, once an artist was done
tracing the shapes, he or she could simply turn the
paper upside down, and voilà!

The image was now rightside up!
You may be wondering about the word camera meaning a round room...
when all the pictures I showed were of ordinary shaped rooms.
Well, I am not sure what people called those square-shaped rooms
designed to display upside-down images. Obviously, different cultures
would have had different names for them, in different languages
(Mandarin, say, or Greek).

But eventually, in the 1700s and 1800s, people began to build
fancy camera obscura for entertainment purposes. These
round rooms still had light enter through a single small hole
or lens - but the light hit a mirror before being displayed, so the
image was rightside up for the viewers!
Another very old form of gathering images is a pinhole camera. In this invention, light enters a box through a pinhole, and a perfect upside-down image forms.

Both of these kinds of ancient cameras are popular science projects - you can build one yourself!

Of course, at some point people started trying to capture the images gathered on paper. In 1800, the British inventor Thomas Wedgwood used paper treated with silver nitrate, which was light sensitive. Outside of the camera obscura, he succeeded in making "sun prints" - shadows of objects and even shadow copies of paintings on glass - but his silver-nitrate paper was not able to pick up images from the camera obscura. There was just too little light to make an image on the light-sensitive paper, although the paper as a whole did slowly darken.

Earliest surviving photo-
In 1822 our famous birthday, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, made the first permanent "photoetching." Like Wedgwood, Nicéphore Niépce had played around with silver nitrates, and like Wedgwood he'd had no luck with them. So Nicéphore Niépce abandoned the idea of using silver anything, and instead he used a naturally occurring asphalt called bitumen. Although I always think of asphalt as something that covers our streets, bitumen is apparently light sensitive. The earliest surviving photograph, made by a camera obscura with a lens on bitumen-treated paper, was accomplished by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826.

Earliest surviving photograph

But there was a problem with Nicéphore Niépce's attempt at photography. Even though he was successful in capturing images, it took way too long to do so. Like eight hours spread over several days! So he tried to work out a better bitumen process or maybe replace it altogether.

Louis Daguerre
At this point, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce decided to work with Louis Daguerre on the problem. They were able to make some improvements, making better, clearer photographs, using a special resin, but the photos still required hours of exposure.

So far, photography was simply not practical for the public, so Nicéphore Niépce and Daguerre  kept experimenting. Since they thought there would be a lot of money in photography, they kept their experiments secret.

In 1833, Nicéphore Niépce died, and Daguerre decided to try the whole silver thing. He eventually succeeded in making a permanent photo in a fraction of the time. His system used silver-plated copper, mercury vapor, and a chemical bath! He introduced this version of photography to the world in 1839.

An early daugerreotype.

It took 10 - 12 minutes of exposure to make this image,
so the images of the moving vehicles and people on the
street were not captured.

However, there was a bootblack and his customer who
remained still long enough that their images are visible.

This process is NOT considered "the first" photography, but rather the first publicly available photography. 

See? That's how two different men can be considered "first"s in photography, and why both can lay claim to being the inventor of photography. 

And now photography is unrecognizably precise, colorful, and capable of endless amounts of color-correction, editing, addition, and special effects!

Also on this date:


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(Wednesday of the first full week of March)

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