William Henry Fox Talbot Biography: Calotype Process Inventor

William Henry Fox Talbot was not only a British scientist and, inventor but also a photography pioneer. In the later 19th as well as 20th centuries, he invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes.

William Henry Fox Talbot Biography

In the 1840s when he worked on photomechanical reproduction then it led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure.

Not only this but he was also the holder of a controversial patent and it affected the early development of commercial photography in Britain.

william henry fox talbot
William Henry Fox Talbot

Furthermore, he was also a known photographer who contributed to the development of photography as an artistic medium.

William Talbot published ‘The Pencil of Nature (1844–46)’, which was illustrated with original salted paper prints from his calotype negatives. Furthermore, he made some important early photographs of Oxford, Paris, Reading, and York.

The Early Life of William Henry Fox Talbot

He was born on 11 February 1800 in Melbury, Dorset, England. William Henry Fox Talbot was the only child of William Davenport Talbot and of Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways who was the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester.

william henry fox talbot the pencil of nature
William Henry Fox Talbot the pencil of nature

Agnes Porter was his governess who had also educated his mother. He received his education at Rottingdean, Harrow School and at Trinity College, Cambridge.

William Henry Fox Talbot Career

In 1820, he received Porson Prize in Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge and then in 1821, he graduated as the twelfth wrangler.

He communicated many papers to the Royal Society and out of these many papers were on mathematical subjects and this happened during the time period of 1822 to 1872.

William Henry Fox Talbot

At an early period, optical research started interesting him and which later gave him fruit as it had a connection with photography. He helped and contributed in many papers including in 1826,

He contributed to Edinburgh Philosophical Journal with a paper on “Some Experiments on Coloured Flame”; then to a ‘Quarterly Journal of Science’ in 1827 a paper on “Monochromatic Light”; and to the Philosophical Magazine papers on chemical subjects “Chemical Changes of Color.

Photographic Inventions of William Henry Fox Talbot

The “calotype” which is also called “talbotype” was a “developing out” process. It is the improvement of Talbot of his earlier photogenic drawing process with the help of a different silver salt from silver iodide instead of silver chloride

And a developing agent including gallic acid and silver nitrate which helps in bringing out an invisibly slight “latent” image on the exposed paper.

William Henry Fox Talbot

This process decreased the needed exposure time in the camera to only one or two minutes for subjects in bright sunlight. It was possible to produce as many positive prints as you needed with the help of the translucent calotype negative by simple contact printing.

Calotype Process by William Henry Fox Talbot

Whereas it was also possible to reproduce the daguerreotype which was an opaque direct positive by copying it with a camera. On the other hand, the calotype was still not pin-sharp like the metallic daguerreotype even after waxing of the negative to make the image clearer,

William Henry Fox Talbot
Calotype Process

Because the printed image was degraded due to the paper fibers. When there was a requirement to make prints from calotype negatives then the simpler salted paper process was normally used.

In 1841, Talbot announced his calotype process and in August he licensed the first professional calotypist, Henry Collen who was the miniature painter. Hill & Adamson was the most celebrated practitioners of the process.

Patenting Controversies

Levett Landon Boscawen Ibbetson was another notable calotypist. For his photographic discoveries, he received Rumford Medal at Royal Society in 1842. Calotype or talbotype is an early photographic technique invented in 1830.

William Henry Fox Talbot

In this process, silver chloride or AgCl is used for the coating of a sheet of paper which is exposed to light in a camera obscura. The areas on which light hits becomes dark in a tone which results in a negative image.

William Henry Fox Talbot Reading Establishment

This process involves the revolutionary aspect of Talbot’s discovery of a chemical called gallic acid. This acid is useful for the development of an image on a paper. This technique requires a shorter exposure time.

Talbot also helped in setting up an establishment in Baker Street, Reading, for mass-producing salted paper prints from his calotype negatives in 1844.

william henry fox talbot calotype process inventor biography
william henry fox talbot calotype process inventor biography

The Reading Establishment also offered services to the public for making prints from others’ negatives, copying artwork and documents and taking portraits at its studio. But this enterprise was not a success.

Spectroscopic Investigations

In the field of spectral analysis, Talbot was one of the earliest researchers. He was able to show that the spectrum of each of the chemical elements was unique. Moreover, he was also able to prove that it was possible to identify the chemical elements from their spectra.

William Henry Fox Talbot

In spite of being a British scientist, inventor, and photographer, he was also active in politics. He was a moderate Reformer who generally supported the Whig Ministers.

Between 1832 and 1835, he served as Member of Parliament for Chippenham when he retired from Parliament. In 1840, he also held the office of High Sheriff of Wiltshire.

William Talbot’s Other Activities

He devoted his much time in archaeology. He also had a 20-year involvement in the field of Assyriology. He also shares the honor with Sir Henry Rawlinson and Dr. Edward Hincks of having been one of the first decipherers of the cuneiform inscriptions of Nineveh.

William Henry Fox Talbot

‘Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Researches (1838–39)’, and ‘Illustrations of the Antiquity of the Book of Genesis (1839)’ were published by him. Moreover, he was also the author of English Etymologies (1846).

William Henry Fox Talbot developed poor health for many years and then he died in Lacock village when he was of 77 years old. He is buried there along with his wife and children.

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