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Talbot, William Henry Fox

method process camera light

(1800–77) British inventor of negative/positive photographic process.

Talbot, the son of a relatively impoverished officer of dragoons, stepson of a rear admiral and grandson of an earl, was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, where he studied classics and mathematics and did well in both. He was 12th wrangler in 1821, and his later researches in mathematics secured him the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1838. He also had success as a decipherer of Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions. He began a political career, becoming MP for Chippenham in 1833, but apparently found it unsatisfying – he spent most of that year honeymooning on the Continent, sketching with his wife. Like many others, he used a camera obscura as an artist’s aid, but found this frustrating and laborious and, as he said later, ‘the idea occurred to me – how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper!’ He experimented on these lines, using writing paper impregnated with silver salts, whose sensitivity to light was well known. In this way he made, in 1835, a very small picture of the lattice window of the small library at his family home, Lacock Abbey. It is the second oldest surviving photograph, the oldest being by and also showing a window of a family home, photographed from the inside.

Talbot turned to other interests, but was spurred back to action by news of work in 1839. Talbot exhibited his own ‘photogenic drawings’ within weeks at the Royal Institution, but most of these were merely silhouettes made by superposition without a camera, and all his results were much inferior to the daguerrotypes, especially in their brilliance and detail. However, Talbot persisted in seeing his efforts as competitive with Daguerre’s. In 1840 he discovered, by chance, the latent image; exposure of his sensitized paper in a camera for only a few minutes gave a result which could be made visible by ‘development’ in warm gallic acid, and then the picture was fixed with ‘hypo’ which dissolved out unchanged silver. These last two steps were due to others; both had been publicly suggested by his friend in 1839 and used by him, but these facts did not deter Talbot from later patenting both uses. Talbot made some of his photographs translucent by waxing them and then used this negative to make positive contact prints, and in this way he obtained lateral reversal and reversal of light and shade as in the Page 344  original scene; as well as the ability to produce prints in any number. Talbot was almost alone in quickly seeing the advantages of this. His results were published in his The Pencil of Nature (1844), the world’s first book illustrated by camera photographs. had used Herschel’s ‘cyanotype’ process to illustrate her book on algae published in 1843, and was the first to use a photographic method to illustrate a book.

Talbot patented his calotype process in 1841 and thereafter collected licence fees from other users of the method, vigilantly guarding his rights by frequent lawsuits. His aggressive attitude retarded the work of others, generated much ill-will, and by the 1850s was stifling both amateur and commercial photography in the UK, but by 1852 the pressure of protest led him to relax his grip somewhat. Even so, he controlled for some years in the UK all ways of making pictures by light except the daguerrotype, and it was said to be surprising that his claims did not include the Sun as a light source. Only when in 1854 he failed in his claim to cover collodion process did photography really advance.

In 1851 Talbot founded electric flash photography, when at the Royal Institution he made a sharp photograph of a rapidly rotating page of The Times by using a battery of Leyden jars, which gave an intense spark lasting less than 10 –5 s. By 1887 was using this method to photograph bullets in flight. Talbot was always interested in photomechanical printing, and from 1858 a method he had devised using a piece of gauze as a screen to break up the picture into small dots gave good results for half-tone printing. As usual he was a belligerent litigant in this field, in part because of his erroneous belief that abstract ideas are patentable and his view that a successor had no right to use a novel method to achieve a result similar to that he had already obtained.

In his lifetime as a gentleman scholar, he had also prospered by the sale of photographic materials and by the sale of licences to use his methods.

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