Thomas Wedgwood – possibly the First Photographer

Thomas Wedgwood

Thomas Wedgwood

On May 14, 1771, early experimenter in the field of photography Thomas Wedgwood was born. He is the first person known to have thought of creating impermanent pictures by capturing camera images on material coated with a light-sensitive chemical. His practical experiments yielded only shadow image photograms that were not light-fast, but his conceptual breakthrough and partial success have led some historians to call him “the first photographer”.

Thomas Wedgwood was born into a family of pottery manufacturers and was educated in Etruria. It is believed that he spent much of his life with painters, sculptors, and poets, to whom he was able to be a patron after he inherited his father’s wealth in 1795.

The young Wedgwood became interested in methods of child education. He soon concluded that most of the information that young brains absorbed came through the eyes, and were thus related to light and images.

Thomas Wedgwood is also the first known person to has used light-sensitive chemicals to capture silhouette images on durable media such as paper, and the first known to have attempted to photograph the image formed in a camera obscura. However, the date of his first experiments in photography is unknown. But it is believed that he indirectly advised James Watt on the practical details prior to 1800.

It is assumed that Wedgwood was adviced by Alexander Chisholm and members of the Lunar Society durig his chemistry experiments with paper and white leather coated with silver nitrate. However, Wedgwood’s primary objective was to capture real-world scenes with a camera obscura, but those attempts were unsuccessful. However, he indeed succeeded in using exposure to direct sunlight to capture silhouette images of objects in contact with the treated surface, as well as the shadow images cast by sunlight passing through paintings on glass. In both cases, the sunlit areas rapidly darkened while the areas in shadow did not.

In Bristol, Wedgwood met Humphry Davy.  Davy wrote up his friend’s work for publication in London’s Journal of the Royal Institution, entitled “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.” Even though Wedgwood and the published work incluenced and inspired many future photographers, the experimenter himself was unable to “fix” his pictures to make them immune to the further effects of light.

At yovisto, you can learn more about The History of Photography in a lecture by Nancy Crandall.

References and Further Reading:

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