Roger Cicala: Imaging before photography – a history lesson (Part 1)


I love talking about historical times because they’re weird, chaotic, and often make no sense. But they were fun. Today we efficiently build amazing buildings 160 stories high. But nobody puts gargoyles on them anymore. Nobody puts secret codes in the ceilings, either.

Gargoyle, Chichester Cathedral, Martinvl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ceiling at Rosslyn Chapel, Roger Cicala, 1998.

The early days, back when photographic advances were made by individuals rather than corporations, are much more fun to write about. People do brilliant things and stupid things, are petty and magnanimous, are obsessive and distracted. The inventors of photography often despised each other, lived in countries that scorned each other, and fought like they were arguing about lens sharpness on a camera forum.

Even 150 years later, national pride and a host of other factors color all but the most academic articles on the history of photography. Who am I kidding, they color the academic articles, too. The French claim to have invented photography and by strict definition they did. That doesn’t stop the British from claiming they invented real photography, with prints. The Italians, though, say it was all started with their technology. The Scotts claim (and they’re right) that they developed the art of photography. And, of course, the Germans say they perfected it technically. Even Brazil has a legitimate claim to originating the term photography.

My path through history is similar to a drunken man’s walk home from the pub; it gets there, but it wanders around a bit.

When I actually started doing historical research, I often found it was often impossible to separate fact from fiction; there are usually two or three versions of what actually happened. At first, I spent ridiculous amounts of time deciding which version was true(st), often unsuccessfully. So, generally, when I can’t decide ‘what is most true’ I go with ‘which version is most amusing’.

I also wander off topic when I find that amusing. Take it for what it’s worth. My path through history is similar to a drunken man’s walk home from the pub; it gets there, but it wanders around a bit.

Before there were photographs

This first article is about the early developments leading up to the invention of the camera; the first efforts to make permanent images from light. So many people came so close that the camera really should have been invented long before it actually was. All the pieces where there, but no one put it all together.

Today we can’t really grasp what a huge deal being able to make an image was in the 1800s. You could have a portrait painted, but that took up to a year to complete and on average cost over a year’s salary for a working man. Sketches were quicker and cheaper (although not that much) and you could buy printed engravings (they were still pretty expensive).

Erasmus of Rotterdam. Engraving by Albrecht Durer, 1526. Image is in the public domain

For most people, even the wealthy, if you wanted an image of something, you needed at least some basic artistic skills to make it yourself.

But there was always the camera obscura

The camera obscura was a device that helped create images which was around for centuries before photography. We took the word camera came from the camera obscura which literally means darkened chamber. The first camera obscura consisted simply of a pinhole in the wall of a dark room or shed: an inverted image of the scene outside the room could then be seen on the wall opposite the pinhole.

The use of the camera obscura was first described in China in the 5th Century BC when Mo Ti used it to trace images. Aristotle, Euclid, Alhazen (the father of optics), Kepler, Galileo and Da Vinci all used and wrote about camera obscuras.

The camera obscura was widely used as a drawing aid by artists in the Renaissance. In the mid-1500s Giambattista della Porta suggested in his book “Magiae Naturalis” that a camera obscura with a convex lens should be used to sketch all portraits and landscapes before painting.

The First of Many Rambling Wanderings…

Giambattista is part of the reason the camera obscura wasn’t talked about much for the next century. You may not have heard of him, but he was a fascinating guy. He was part of the ‘scientific underworld’ of the late Middle Ages, quietly rejecting religious dogma and beginning the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century. He wrote numerous books on everything from codes (codes were very big in the 1500s), optics and science, what we would call self-help books for improving memory (he recommended pornographic mnemonics as the strongest memory aid), recipes for hallucinogenic drugs, and a number of plays. All this made him extremely popular in his native Naples, less popular with the Popes and Cardinals in Rome.

Once, he made a room-sized camera obscura by putting a small hole in an outside wall of his house and darkening the windows. He then invited guests over, thinking they would entertained by seeing the images of the people walking in the street outside projected upside down on his wall.

Giambattista apparently forgot that he was living in Italy in the 1570s. His visitors immediately realized the images of upside down humans moving on the wall could only be the work of the Devil, ran screaming from his house, and Giovanni spent the next year defending himself from charges of Sorcery brought by the Inquisition. He was eventually pardoned but was banned from writing books, other than plays, for several years. His plays, particularly the comedies, were very popular and supposedly influenced Shakespeare.

Back to the camera obscura

Over time, the camera obscura evolved into a wooden box with a lens and mirror that was somewhat portable.

While the camera obscura remained in widespread use by artists, it wasn’t written about much until the 1700s. (Whether this was from fear of Sorcery charges, or simply artists not wanting to reveal the tools of their trade, is unclear. Probably a bit of both.) But by the mid 1700s the camera obscura, along with the camera lucida, was considered a standard tool of artists and illustrators. The better ones contained focusable lenses, mirrors to flip the image upright, and ground glass screens on which the image was projected.

A camera obscura in use. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons Circa 1850s, Illustrator Unknown. Image is in the public domain.

Artists traced the projected images and painted it later if they wished, but this had to be done by hand. It was time consuming and required at least some artistic ability. The camera obscura, after centuries of steady improvement, was certainly ready to become the photography camera from at least the mid 1700s. A century later, the first cameras were basically camera obscuras with the light projected onto light-sensitive plates rather than ground glass screens. Only the means to capture the image was lacking. Well, actually it wasn’t, but nobody realized that yet.

The alchemists or all the chemists

Unlike the camera obscura, the development of light sensitive plates and chemicals wasn’t a story of steady progress. It’s basically a story of forgotten technologies, stops and starts, and missing the obvious.

People have known for a long time that certain chemicals, notably some salts of silver, would darken when exposed to light. An Italian physician and early chemist, Angelo Sala, published a pamphlet in 1614 that stated silver salts “turn as black as ink when exposed to the sun.” But Robert Boyle (of Boyle’s Gas Law fame, and therefore considered much more authoritative at the time) felt it was exposure to air or heat, not light, that caused the change. So, the silver salt thing got dropped completely for 100 years.

In 1674 there were two known ways to get light: the sun and fire. So, a substance that glowed without giving off heat was a Major Big Deal

It got reintroduced in a very roundabout way. In 1674 an alchemist (the guys trying to turn lead into gold) named Christoph Balduin was working with the liquid alchemists most liked to work with: Aqua Regia (literally meaning Royal Water). Aqua Regia isn’t really water, it’s a solution of Nitric and Hydrochloric acid. It got its name because, not surprisingly, it would dissolve any of the Royal metals: gold, silver, platinum, etc*. Alchemists thought since Royal Water could make gold disappear, maybe it could make other things turn into gold.

Since you never know just what might turn into gold, Balduin decided to dissolve some chalk (Calcium Carbonate) in Aqua Regia. He got no gold, but created a substance (calcium nitrate, although he didn’t know that) that would glow in the dark for hours after it had been exposed to strong sunlight. In 1674 there were two known ways to get light: the sun and fire. So, a substance that glowed without giving off heat was a Major Big Deal. He demonstrated it to the Royal Society, which promptly made him a member, and published a paper about it which was widely read.

Another Random Wandering…

The furor about anything luminescent in the 1600s was partly because it was believed by some to represent ‘the glow of life’. Perhaps it was the Philosopher’s Stone, perhaps a source of immortality or health. A lot of effort went into finding other ‘phosphorus’, which at that time meant any substance that gave off light without burning.

Henning Brand, a German alchemist, stumbled on a way to isolate phosphorus from urine. This wasn’t an easy process; it took about 570 gallons of urine and 9 different steps (I have the recipe if you want to try this at home) to isolate about 12 grams of moderately pure white phosphorous (P4) which glows green-blue in the dark. It really seems like a triumph of technology over common sense, but it created quite a stir.

Since this was the only luminescent substance that came from living beings, it was called ‘phosphorus mirabilis’ (miraculous bearer of light) or the phosphorus of life. There was a lot of speculation on the meaning of this glowing substance that left the body in the urine, and most of the conclusions were mystical. So, the next time you hear about those nuts who drink their urine for health, you now know the pseudoscience that started that practice.

Around 1717, a German physician named Johann Schulze decided he’d like to have some glow-in-the-dark material (who doesn’t) and repeated Balduin’s recipe. But his Aqua Regia had already been used to dissolve some silver and was contaminated with silver salts, so he actually created silver nitrate, rather than the calcium nitrate he intended. Rather than glowing in the dark, the silver nitrate became black when exposed to the sun. You know, like Angelo Sala had discovered 100 years before.

Schulze was a better scientist than Balduin, figured out he’d made silver nitrate, and demonstrated the darkening effect was caused by light, not heat or air. He even made images by placing stencils over a bottle filled with silver nitrate solution and exposing it to light. The image remained until he shook the flask, erasing the image. Sort of the original Etch-a-Sketch.

Johann Heinrich Schulze. Mezzotint by J. J. Haid after G. Spizel. Image in the public domain.

In a paper he published in 1727, Schulze even suggested that this chemical change could be combined with the camera obscura to create images. The images were temporary, though, since any time you looked at them you exposed the rest of the silver nitrate to more light, eventually turning it all black. Schulze’s work wasn’t exactly forgotten, but since all you could do with his silver nitrate was make temporary images, almost nobody did anything with it.

The Swedish/German chemist and pharmacist Carl Scheele put the ‘almost’ in ‘almost nobody’. He discovered, around 1777, that silver chloride turned black with light exposure, just like silver nitrate. He also found that ammonia would dissolve unexposed, but not the exposed, black, silver chloride, washing it away. This presented the world with a way to “fix” silver chloride images. Scheele’s findings (all of them, not just this) were largely ignored or forgotten since he worked in Stockholm, rather than in one of the academic centers. It’s too bad, because had anyone read his papers, dozens of people wouldn’t have spent the next 60 years trying to find a way to “fix” images they were making with silver salts.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scheele, dubbed “the hard luck chemist” by Isaac Asimov, was also the first to discover oxygen, barium, chlorine, uric acid, glycerol, and hydrogen cyanide. His papers were not widely circulated until years after his death, by which time others, including Sir Humphrey Davy, had been credited for making the discoveries. He died young, which is not surprising after years of working with toxic chemicals, especially when you consider his work included descriptions of the smell of chlorine gas and what hydrogen cyanide tastes like.

Anyway, by the 1770s, at the latest, all the requirements needed to create photographs were in place. Not that it mattered.

The potter’s son and the first attempts to make images

Thomas Wedgwood** was one the first to purposefully set out on the Holy Quest of making permanent images from light. Thomas was the fifth son of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the Wedgwood Ceramic company. Josiah was quite the experimenter, created a number of new ceramics techniques including transfer printing (transferring glaze from an engraved plate, rather than hand painting) and made a massive fortune. Thomas, who was described as ‘sickly’ and ‘sensitive’ was never involved in the business now controlled by his older brothers. However, he had plenty of money and free time. He spent much of both associating with painters, sculptors, and poets (for whom he often acted as a patron), and visiting doctors for his ailments, for which he was often prescribed opium.

Starting in 1790 or so, Wedgwood became obsessed with capturing images. While it is widely thought that Wedgwood was trying to develop new methods of making contact prints to be transferred to ceramics, this is probably not true. He had little association with the family business, and it is known he tried to make images using a camera obscura, not just contact prints.

Left to right: Thomas Wedgwood (chalk drawing, artist unknown), Humphrey Davy (oil portrait by Thomas Phillips), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (oil portrait by Peter Vandyke, National Portrait Gallery, London).

On one of his doctors visits, Wedgwood met Humphrey Davy who, way before he became a ‘Sir’ studied medicine. He enlisted Davy’s help in the chemistry of making images. Davy knew of Schulze’s findings using silver salts and he and Wedgwood spent several years producing images by contact printing on paper, ceramics, and leather. However, they obviously didn’t know about Scheele’s description of fixing silver salts using ammonia, and they were never able to fix the images permanently.

They did publish “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.” in the Journal of the Royal Institute in 1800. This was a minor journal and not widely read, but at least it documented their groundwork for future experimenters. It is known that David Brewster, a close friend of Henry Fox Talbott, knew of, and wrote about, Wedgwood’s paper

Mr. Wedgwood was never a well man, suffering chronic headaches and stomach pain and taking significant amounts of opium. He died in 1805 at age 34. Perhaps his most significant contribution to the world was the annuity that he provided to fellow opium appreciator Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which allowed Coleridge to devote himself full-time to writing poetry. After Wedgwood’s death Davy lost interest in their experiments and moved on to other things.

Next Up

We’re only about 40 years away from the first camera being invented. Things get a lot more intense and nasty then, so the next chapter should be more fun…


  • Eder, Josef Maria: History of Photography. Chapter X. The Life of Johann Heinrich Schulze. Columbia University Press, 1945.
  • Green, Darran: Replacing History: William Henry Fox Tablott ‘In Camera’. https://www.academia.edu/37589428/Replacing_History_William_Henry_Fox_Talbot_In_Camera
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nic%C3%A9phore_Ni%C3%A9pce
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Wilhelm_Scheele
  • http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/cameraob.htm
  • Kodera, Sergius, “Giambattista della Porta”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/della-porta/
  • Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. Museum of Modern Art. New York. 1982.
  • Osterman, Mark: The Technical Evolution of Photography in the 19th In: Peres, Michael (Ed.): The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th, ed. Elsevier, 2007.
  • Romar, Grant B: Introduction to Biographies of Selected Innovators of Photographic Technology. In: Peres, Michael (Ed.): The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th, ed. Elsevier, 2007.


* The Nazi Party in the 1930s made it illegal for any German to accept a Nobel Prize, because the 1935 Peace Prize had been awarded to a German dissident. When Germany occupied Denmark, the SS was sent to the Neils Bohr Institute looking for expatriate German scientists Max von Laue and James Franck, and the gold Nobel Medals they’d been awarded.

A chemist at the Institute, George de Hevesy, quickly mixed a solution of aqua regia and dissolved the gold medals in it. De Hevesy placed the resulting solution on a shelf in his laboratory – just another jar of chemicals – where it was ignored for the next six years. After the war, de Hevesy precipitated the gold out of the acid and sent it to the Nobel Foundation, which recast the medals for Laue and Franck.

** While not what he is most famous for, Darwin’s third book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) was arguably the first scientific text to include photographs. Thomas Wedgwood was Charles Darwin’s uncle. Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin and Wedgwood’s niece.

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