The Birth of Photography: When Amateurs Led the Field

The Birth of Photography: When Amateurs Led the Field

Where do the foundations of photography lie? If the physical principles of the camera had been understood for millennia and chemists had known for some time that silver reacted to light, what then led to a convergence of understanding in the 1830s?

As seems frequent in science, two different people, in two different countries, find different solutions to the same problem. And so it was with photography, with both Daguerre (having had some significant assistance from Niepce) and Talbot. The Daguerrotype was announced in the August 1839, a positive based process that gave a detailed image. This was followed by Talbot's Calotype in 1841 which was negative based and printed on to paper. While less detailed than the Dagerrotype, it solved the significant problem of unlimited and low cost reproduction. If you want a refresher on how some of these work then my articles on John Thomson and John Plumbe provide some more detail.

In this BBC podcast, “In Our Time” presenter Melvyn Bragg takes us on a tour of the invention of photography with the assistance of Professor Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge), Professor Elizabeth Edwards (De Montfort University) and Alison Morrison-Low (National Museums Scotland). It's a delectable 43 minutes of carefully considered, well researched and openly discussed material. While you may be aware of many aspects of photography's history, like me, there will be things you didn't know and tying that historical thread together is satisfying. For example, although I was aware that Talbot had patented the Calotype, I wasn't aware that he didn't do this in Scotland. This may have in part led to the immense success of Hill and Adamson, which much have been galling to Talbot! It is also interesting to see how amateur scientists led the field and, in many instances, gave their inventions to society as a whole. Perhaps something we could remind Adobe of.

Image by darkmoon1968 via Pixabay.

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1 Comment
michaeljin's picture

I think amateur scientists and engineers the world over are still contributing their discoveries to the global knowledgebase. Look at the all of the people in the "maker" community or the plenty of people who contribute to open source projects.

I think the only real difference today is that you didn't have the drowning voice of powerful corporate marketing and lobbying reaching the masses on the level that you do today. Another part of it can be chalked up to the laziness of people in general. Do I want to read a document that is going to give me the instructions on how to build something that solves my problems or do I want to go online and order a pre-manufactured solution that will be delivered to my doorstep in two days?

I'm not less guilty than anyone else as can be evidenced from my rather long back and forth about preferring to order a V-Flat rather than just build one on my own in another article.