Attending a wedding festival of a very good friend in the Senni valley in a very wet Wales, I was fascinated by the number and varieties of camera displayed to capture the festivities  (and the exuberant collection of wellies, from ordinary green one to ones patterned in flowers, skulls or abstract designs!), from mobile phones to the very expensive varieties.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) FRS 1831, pioneer of photography, is the man to blame for all the snapping going on. Born in Melbury, Dorset, he went to school in Harrow, then Trinity College Cambridge. In 1824 he met John Herschel in Munich. Talbot had already published several papers in mathematics, but this meeting established a friendship and scientific collaboration which influenced him to turn towards research into light and optics. It was Herschel who introduced him to the Scottish philosopher David Brewster, also researching into light.

Talbot was elected a Fellow in 1831 (Michael Faraday was one of his proposers), but it was not until he was sketching on the shores of Lake Como in 1833 that he had the idea of  ‘how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon paper’.  In 1834 he began experimenting, spreading nitrate of silver on paper, then  ‘set the paper in the sunshine, having first placed before it some object casting a well defined shadow. The light, acting on the rest of the paper would naturally blacken it, while the parts in shadow would retain their whiteness.’  Sir John Herschel provided the term ‘negatives’ for these. He also conceived the idea of stabilizing his images against further action by light by using potassium iodide, a process to which Herschel gave the name of ‘fixing’.

He spent the next few years in refining the process and mathematical works, and it was not until November 1838 that he began his paper to the Royal Society. Then there came the news that Daguerre had frozen the images of the camera obscura. It was not the same process as Talbot’s, but encouraged him to finish his paper  ‘Some account of Photogenic Drawing or, the process of which Natural Objects may be made to delineate themselves, without the aid of the Artist’s Pencil‘  which was sent to the Royal Society and read on 31 January 1839  [AP/23/19 – see image below]. This was the paper which established him as the true inventor of photography, and the Royal Society subsequently awarded him the prestigious Rumford Medal in 1842  ‘for his discoveries and improvements in photography’.  However, others worked on the processes, and in a court case in 1854 he lost his patent on it as the newer processes invented by others subsequently took the process further.

Whether used as a recording medium, or artistically, photography and its equipment has come a long way since Talbot’s time, and is now an integral part of our lives.

Fox Talbot's letter to the Royal Society, describing the process of 'photogenic drawing'

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