May 14, 1771 – Thomas Wedgwood:
“Take a picture, it will last longer!“
An Englishman, Wedgwood was an early experimenter in the field of photography. He is the first person known to have thought of creating permanent pictures by capturing camera images on material coated with a light-sensitive chemical. His experiments were only shadow images that were not light-fast, but his concept and partial success were breakthroughs, making him sort of “the first photographer”.
His father was Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795), a potter, entrepreneur, and abolitionist. Founding the Wedgwood company in 1759, the senior Wedgwood was the leader in the industrialization of the manufacture of European pottery. Wedgwood was a fine china, porcelain, and luxury accessories manufacturer, exporting across Europe as far as Russia, and to North America. Wedgwood is still in operation, although it is owned by Waterford Glass. A Wedgwood Museum is in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England.
Wedgwood was also the uncle of English naturalist Charles Darwin, best known for bringing the ire of religious rightwing nutjobs for his contributions to Evolutionary Biology.
Wedgwood was instilled from his youth with a love for art. He also spent much of his short life in the company of painters, sculptors, and poets, to whom he was a patron after he inherited his father’s wealth in 1795.
As a young adult, Wedgwood became interested in the best ways of educating children, and he spent time studying babies. From his observations, he concluded that most of the information that young brains absorbed came through the eyes, and their first ideas were related to light and images.
When you ponder the history of science/technology such as photography, it is perhaps difficult to be able to understand how photography was viewed at the time of Wedgwood.
He lived so short a life and his discoveries lie almost forgotten, even though he was the first person to conceive of writing with light on a surface. He knew how silver nitrate turned black when exposed to light, and he was the first to capture “negative images” by exposing them to sunlight. These were photograms, where an opaque object, such as a leaf, was placed on paper and it was then exposed to the sun which turned the unprotected area black.
The key problem for Wedgwood was that he could not figure out how to fix the image; so that it became permanent. He would take his pictures during the day and then show them to friends under candlelight at night. This problem of fixation remained unsolved for the next half century.
Wedgewood was also the first person to conceive of placing a photsensitive surface inside of a camera obscura (a darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side through which an image is projected onto a wall or table opposite the hole) and taking a true photograph. But his photo-sensitive surfaces were too slow. But there was the spark of an idea.
During a visit to the clinic in Bristol for medical treatment, Wedgwood met Humphry Davy (1778–1829), a young chemist. In 1802, Davy published an account of Wedgwood’s work in London’s Journal of the Royal Institution titled An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver. Invented by T. Wedgwood, Esq.
The Royal Institution was at that time somewhat obscure, yet this paper is believed to have play a crucial role in the advancement of photography. Men such as Wedgwood and Davy evolved away from photography as alchemy and into a world where the basic mechanisms of the processes became understood. The electron was discovered. Electrochemistry became understood. Quantum mechanics and the photoelectric effect were discovered. All of this represented a new level of understanding.
The date of his first experiments in photography is unknown, but he is believed to have indirectly advised the Scottish inventor, and “father of the industrial revolution”, James Watt (1736–1819) on the practical details before 1800. In a letter dated to 1790, Watt wrote to Josiah Wedgwood:
“Dear Sir, I thank you for your instructions as to the Silver Pictures, about which, when at home, I will make some experiments…“
In his many experiments, Wedgwood used paper and white leather coated with silver nitrate. The leather proved to be more light-sensitive. His objective had been to capture real-world scenes with a camera obscura, but those attempts were unsuccessful. He did succeed in using exposure to direct sunlight to capture silhouette images of objects in contact with the treated surface, as well as the shadow images cast by sunlight passing through paintings on glass. In both cases, the sunlit areas rapidly darkened while the areas in shadow did not.
Photographs such as Wedgwood made can be preserved indefinitely by storing them in total darkness and protecting them from the harmful effects of prolonged open exposure to the air, for example, by keeping them tightly pressed between the pages of a large book.
By the middle to late 1830s, photography pioneers Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre found ways of chemically stabilizing the images their processes produced, making them relatively insensitive to additional exposure to light.
In 1885, Samuel Highley, an early photography historian, published an article in which he claimed that he had seen what must have been unfixed examples of early pictures made by Wedgwood, dating to the 1790s.
Wedgwood never married and had no children. His Wikipedia entry notes that “neither his extant letters nor family tradition tell us of his caring for any woman outside the circle of his relations” and that he was “strongly attracted” to musical and sensitive young men.
Chronically ill as an adult, he died in the county of Dorset at the age of 34.
In 2008, there were reports that one of Wedgwood’s photographs had surfaced and was to be sold at auction. The photogram, as shadow photographs are now called, showed the silhouette and internal structure of a leaf, and was marked in one corner with what appeared to be the letter “W”. A few days before the scheduled sale, the image was withdrawn so that it could be more completely analyzed.
Davy went on invent the “Davy Lamp”, a very early form of arc lamp. He is also remembered for isolating, by using electricity, several elements for the first time: potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium, as well as for discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. Davy also invented the new field of electrochemistry.
In 1799 he experimented with nitrous oxide and was astonished at how it made him laugh, so he nicknamed it “laughing gas” and wrote about its use as an anesthesia during surgery.
Davy also never married or was associated with a woman. He died at 50 years old in hotel room in Geneva.