When Limitation leads to Invention – Curious case of Niépce

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce - The inventor of Photography

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce - The inventor of Photography

World's first Camera up for exhibition in Macao

World's first Camera up for exhibition in Macao

Right now in Macao, world’s oldest camera is on display in an exhibition.  This reminded me of what I had read about Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Niépce was the inventor of photography.

However it’s interesting how he got the inspiration to invent photography. In those days, popular form of catching images was with “Camera Obscura”. Camera obscura was basically a box with hole on one side of the box. So through passing of the light, the image in front of the hole would get reflected on a thin paper on the opposite side of the hole. Once this image was reflected on the paper, the person (or ‘photographer’) was required to trace the image with the help of a pencil. This is what Niépce couldn’t do. He didn’t have a steady hand. Since he couldn’t draw, he had to find some other way to be able to take photographs.

View from the window at Le Gras, 1827. The first photograph ever....

View from the window at Le Gras, 1827. The first photograph ever....

He tried to look for alternatives where he wouldn’t be required to use his hand. He experimented with lithography – a method for printing using metal plate or stone. He replaced the thin paper in the ‘Camera Obscura’ with a metal plate. After experimenting with different metals and chemical coatings he finally produced the first photograph on a highly polished pewter plate, coated with bitumen. After an eight hour exposure in the camera, the plate was washed in a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum to produce the first permanent positive image. Here on the left, you can see the image. By the way, Niépce had termed this a ‘Heliograph’, recognising the power of the sun. (source)