Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Melainotype and Neff

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Melainotype and Neff

Article excerpt

Although Peter Neff Jr. (1827-1903) was not the inventor of the japanned iron plate, he was the person most instrumental in manufacturing and marketing it.1 In an age that weekly saw the announcement of a new photographic process or invention, it was remarkable that Neff's plates would be embraced with any enthusiasm. In six years, however, it was declared an American institution. Its success must be credited to Neff.


Peter Neff graduated from Kenyon College in 1849, the same year that Hamilton L. Smith arrived as professor of astronomy and natural philosophy. Neff returned to Gambier, Ohio, in 1852 to attend Bexley Hall Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1854.2

While a seminarian, Neff assisted Smith in his experiments with collodion positives on japanned iron plates, and continued to do so even after he had been ordained a priest and given charge of the Protestant Episcopal churches at Xenia and Yellow Springs, near Dayton, Ohio. In 1855, Neff persuaded Smith to apply for a patent with the understanding that if granted Neff alone would manufacture and introduce the new plates to the photographic community. The patent for "Photographic Pictures on Japanned Surfaces" was issued on February 19, 1856. At Smith's suggestion, it was assigned to both Peter Neff and his father William, who likely provided the financial support for the enterprise and who, at the time of his death in November 1856, assigned his interest in the patent and the business to his son.3 With the patent secured, both the process and the iron plate were renamed the melainotype.4

Neff's first attempt to manufacture the melainotype plate took place in rooms above his father's stable on West Sixth Street, near Cutter Street, in Cincinnati. That summer, after struggling to find sheet iron thin and smooth enough for his purposes, he finally was able to purchase several tons of Taggers Iron from England, which had been imported for him by the firm of Phelps, Dodge & Company of New York.5 Although Taggers was usually surfaced with tin, the unvarnished backs of Neff's early plates show no physical evidence of such a coating. In 1853 it was available as both Tinned Taggers and Black Taggers.6 Neff chose nontinned or Black Taggers for his plates.

By the fall, Neff had moved to a newly built melainotype gallery and manufactory at No. 239 West Third Street in Cincinnati, on the south side of the street between Plum and Western Row. The space was large enough to include rooms for operating and teaching.7 To encourage the acceptance and purchase of the new plate, he sent out instructors to teach the process to daguerreotype operators. He also published a working manual, The Melainotype Process, Complete. It was distributed free of charge to photographic journals and supply houses, and to those who had purchased rights to his patent.8 This manual was expanded, and in February 1857 Humphrey's Journal announced the publication of a Treatise of Photography on Collodion, coauthored by Peter Neff and Charles Waldack, a photographic chemist from Cincinnati. It included instructions for making both collodion positives and negatives, as well as instructions for making salt and albumen prints.9

With growing confidence, Neff placed his first advertisement for the melainotype in Humphrey's Journal m October 1856. In it he emphasized the speed at which a melainotype could be made, as well as its healthy qualities-probably a reference to the poisonous vapor of mercury used in the daguerreotype process. He also noted that he had secured four agents for the sale of patent rights and plates: Peter Smith in Cincinnati, Edward Anthony in New York, James Cremer in Philadelphia, and Hesler & Erwin in Chicago.10 Peter Smith, who owned and operated the Cincinnati Photographic Stock Depot, had been Neff's agent from the beginning and had purchased Hamilton Smith's remaining patent interests.11 And although there is no evidence that Peter Smith promoted the melainotype plate other than by listing it occasionally in his advertisements, he boldly claimed that the melainotype owed "much of its prestige to him. …

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