Event 78

Beginning 1826 AD

Early box camera
This is an early Rochester box camera from the 1890’s.
Credit: Photo by Kathy Schick, courtesy of the Stone Age Institute. All rights reserved.

Photography literally means ‘light drawing.’ The beginnings of photography have a partial origin in a device used by Leonardo da Vinci and other artists in his time, the ‘camera obscura’ (meaning ‘dark room’), as an aid in drawing. In essence, this is an actual dark room or a box with a small hole at one end; when light from outside enters the room or box, an image of the scene outside is projected onto the side opposite the hole, though upside down. If the image was projected onto paper, it could be traced and used as the basis for a drawing with true perspective and color maintained! (Knowledge of the principle of the camera obscura actually goes back to at least the times of the ancient Chinese and Aristotle in the 5th and 4th Centuries B.C. and was described by the Muslim scientist Ibn al-Haytham’s in his Book of Optics in the 11th Century AD). By the 1700’s, portable forms of the camera obscura were often taken on travels by artists and writers to help them make images or drawings of the sights they saw – an early, do-it-yourself sort of photograph!

The next step would be to fix that image somehow on the paper, and this required the application of chemicals that would react to light and capture the image. A Frenchman named Niépce managed to do this in 1826, capturing an image of his courtyard through an 8-hour exposure in a camera obscura. The chemicals he used, a bitumen coating on a pewter plate, hardened on exposure to the light, and washing the plate with chemicals revealed the image preserved in the hardened bitumen – the first photograph, which he called a ‘heliograph.’ Niépce then partnered with another Frenchman, Daguerre, and they experimented with a silver process, eventually leading after Niepce’s death to the development of the daguerreotype in 1839. The daguerreotype became the prevailing photographic technique across Europe and America starting in the 1940’s, even though it was an expensive, elaborate process requiring several chemical applications (silver halide and iodine vapor to make the coating, mercury vapor and salt or hyposulfite of soda to process the image), and copies could not be made. A number of other photographic techniques emerged throughout the 1800’s (collodion process, gelatin process, etc), most using some combination of silver compounds with other materials to help fix the image and improve the exposure time.

With the development of photographic techniques in the 1800’s, it was a natural outgrowth for some inventors to try to figure out how to photograph – and then play back – moving scenes. ‘Magic lanterns,’ oil lamps that projected images through a lens, were taken around the United Kingdom during the 1800’s to put on shows for people in towns and villages, and served as a sort of proto-cinema. True ‘moving’ pictures and animation, though, are based upon something called “persistence of vision,” in which the eye combines a series of images to make an even flow from one to the next.

A series of inventions throughout the 1800’s led rather quickly to the development of cinema, in tandem with the development of photographic techniques. The Victorian toy called the thaumatrope, which had different images on opposite sides of a disc and which, when twirled, merged the 2 images (for example, of a bird and a cage, creating the image of a bird in a cage), introduced the persistence of vision principle to the broader society. Other such devices to show ‘moving’ images from that period include the Phenkistoscope invented in Belgium and the Stroboscope invented in Austria. Somewhat later in England and America, the invention of the Zoetrope, in which thirteen pictures revolved in a cylinder, allowed large audiences to view such “moving” picture shows by the 1880’s. By the 1890’s, several inventors were experimenting with real sequence photography to create motion pictures. Following on Muybridge’s moving pictures taken in the 1870’s with his Zoopraxiscope, a Frenchman named Marey and an Englishman named Friese-Greene both developed cameras which could photograph sequences of motion onto celluloid film, and Edison also developed a 35 mm film moving camera. Soon movie shows were opening up, in Paris in 1895 and in Britain in 1896. Early movies were generally just part of the overall entertainment at theaters or restaurants, and mostly consisted of newsreels, but with some ventures into short travel or comedy clips.



For most of us, it would be hard to imagine our lives without photography or even without movies. Now cameras are with us everywhere, recording major and minor aspects of our lives, but they began only a short time ago in the history of human culture, in the past 200 years for photography and a little over 100 years for cinema.




This is an interactive timeline of the history of Photography from National Geographic.  Click on the “History of Photography” link.

This is another history timeline of cameras and photographs.

This webpage is about the history of motion pictures.

This is a Wikipedia article about the history of film.

This is another webpage about the history of film.



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