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Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce

[nyeps] producer of the world's first photograph

Joseph-Nicephore Niepce

Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce was born in Chalon-sur-Saône in 1765, the son of a King counsellor and deposits collector. He studied physics and chemistry at the Oratorian Brothers in Angers, where he began using Nicéphore as a first name. He served in the Napoleonic armies until ill health forced his retirement in 1794. Returning to the family estate about 1801, he gave his time to scientific inquiry. In 1807, Joseph and his brother Claude invented an early version of a piston-and-cylinder internal-combustion engine.

In 1813 Joseph turned his attention to lithography, developed by the German inventor Aloys Senefelder several years before. Lithographic stone was hard to obtain, and Niépce had no talent for draftsmanship, so he decided to try to find a way of using light to produce the picture for him. By 1816, Niépce was making his first experiments in a process he named heliography, or sun-drawing. He succeeded after a very long exposure in obtaining an image on paper sensitized with silver chloride. Attempts to fix the image failed, however, and he began experimenting with other materials such as glass and pewter that might form the basis for a photographic plate.

In 1822 Niépce began using a solution of a kind of asphalt called bitumen of Judea, which hardens on exposure to light. By 1826 he had developed this to the point where he could produce a copy of an existing etching by mounting it on a sheet of glass and allowing sunlight to pass through it onto a copper or pewter plate coated in the asphalt solution. The sunlight hardened the asphalt where it passed through the white areas, and the shaded areas could be gently dissolved away by a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum. The plate could now be etched and copies printed.

In the same year, he succeeded in producing the world's first acknowledged photograph. Using his camera, he submitted a sensitized pewter plate to an exposure lasting several hours and obtained on it a fixed negative image of the view outside his workshop. His objective was then to make a plate that could be etched and used to print off the image in positive form. This turned out to be impracticable, however. The length of exposure time required meant that the angle of the sun, and hence the surfaces illuminated and the shadows cast, changed considerably during the plate's exposure. Definition and contrast were consistently poor, and resulted in a good deal of visual indistinctness.

Niepce's 'photograph' of the view from his window, ca 1826
Niepce's 'photograph' of the view from his window, ca 1826

Niépce had little further success in developing his system, and he guarded the secrets of his method with obstinate jealousy. Meanwhile he found himself besieged by a young Parisian painter named Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who tried to persuade him that they ought to work together to perfect heliography. He finally agreed to the partnership in 1829, but died suddenly on July 5, 1833, before the two men had made much progress.

Anthony Feldman and Peter Ford Scientists and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day New York: Facts on File, 1979

Maison Nicéphore Niépce, The Reference Site About the Inventor of Photography

Aloys Senefelder
Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre

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This page was last updated on 07/05/2017.