Joseph Niepce: The Father and Inventor of the first photograph

Introduction to Joseph Niepce

Joseph Niepce
Joseph Niepce
In the 1820s,a man named Joseph-Nicephore Niepce established that certain chemical compounds are sensitive to light, while he was searching for a means of automatically inscribing an image on a lithographic stone, then on a tin plate, in order to engrave it in intaglio. Niepce was the son of a wealthy family suspected of royalist sympathies. He fled the country during the French Revolution but returned to serve the French Army under Napoleon Bonaparte. He was dismissed from the army because of his ill health, after which he settled near his native town of Chalon-Sur-Saone.  This was the town where he remained engaged in research for the rest of his life.

Joseph Niepce as an inventor

In the year 1807, Niepce and his brother Claude invented an internal combustion engine. They named this engine ‘Pyréolophore’, explaining that the word was derived from a combination of the Greek words for “fire,” “wind,” and “I produce.” The engine initially used lycopodium powder for fuel and worked on a piston and cylinder system. Niepce claimed to have used it to power a boat.

The Earliest Camera

When lithography became a fashionable hobby in France in 1813, Niepce began to experiment with the then-novel printing technique. Niepce was unskilled in drawing, and was unable to obtain proper lithographic stone locally so he sought a way to provide images automatically. What he did was that he coated pewter with various light-sensitive substances in an effort to copy superimposed engravings in sunlight. From this he progressed in April 1816 to attempts at photography or heliography (sundrawing), quite literally, with a camera.

The first time, he recorded a view from his workroom window on paper which was sensitized with silver chloride. But, he was only partially able to fix the image. He tried various types of supports for the light-sensitive material bitumen of Judea, a kind of asphalt, which hardens on exposure to light. Using this material he succeeded in 1822 in obtaining a photographic copy of an engraving superimposed on glass. In 1826/27, using a camera, he made a view from his workroom on a pewter plate, this being the first permanently fixed image from nature.

In 1826, he had produced another heliograph, a reproduction of an engraved portrait, which was etched by the Parisian engraver Augustin-François Lemaître, who pulled two prints. Thus we can see that here, Niepce not only solved the problem of reproducing nature by light, but invented the first photomechanical reproduction process.

Unfortunately, Niepce was unable to reduce the very long exposure times by either chemical or optical means. In 1829, he entered a partnership with Louis Daguerre, a Parisian painter, to perfect and exploit heliography. Niepce died without seeing any further advance, but, Daguerre eventually succeeded in greatly reducing the exposure time by building on Niepce’s knowledge. He worked with his materials and eventually discovered a chemical process for development of  the latent (invisible) image formed upon brief exposure.


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