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Wedgwood, Thomas

camera image lens obscura

(1771–1805) British inventor: made first attempt to link photosensitivity of silver salts with image formation in the camera obscura, and so create photography.

Of the several people who have places in the pre-history of photography, Tom Wedgwood most clearly perceived its possibility. As the youngest son of the first Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95), the famous Staffordshire potter and pioneer industrialist, Tom grew up with a family interest in science. At some date in the 1790s, it occurred to him that two concepts, already well-known, might with advantage be brought together. These were, firstly, the sensitivity to light of silver salts and, secondly, the camera obscura, a device consisting of a box with a convex lens at one end and a screen at the other. The lens formed an inverted image on the screen and this image could be traced (or simply copied) by an artist desiring to reproduce the scene facing the lens. Thomas’s father Josiah used the method often; when he secured an order from the Empress of Russia for a dinner service of over 900 pieces, each to show an English country scene, he used the camera obscura to sketch hundreds of scenes in the course of his travels.

Encouraged by and assisted by the youthful , young Wedgwood attempted to capture the camera image on a sheet of paper impregnated with silver nitrate. However, his papers were insufficiently photosensitive and/or his exposures in the camera were not long enough, and so he was unsuccessful. His ‘Account of a method of copying . . .‘, published with Davy in 1802, could only describe successful contact prints obtained by pressing leaves, insect wings etc, on sensitive paper and exposing to strong light, and he found no way even of ‘fixing’ these ‘heliotypes’ or ‘sun pictures’, which darkened further in light. Wedgwood’s health was always frail, and he died aged only 34, leaving to succeed in converting the basic idea of photography into a practical success.

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