100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Photography
Year of Invention: 1840

What Is It? A camera system that records and fixes a visual image on a
light-sensitive surface (film).

Who Invented It? William Talbot (in England)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Only a photograph can capture a moment, freezing it for all time on a piece of paper in all its detail and candid glory. Photographs teach us about our world, our universe, and ourselves as words alone can never do. Photographs have swayed public opinion, driven public outrage, and created public sympathy. Photos have decided guilt or innocence in trials. Photographs have changed history.

Photographs form the core of most families’ treasured memories. Photographs are often the first thing people grab when fleeing their homes in a disaster and are often the thing most miss when they are lost.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Before photography, there existed no way for ordinary people to capture images and moments of their lives. People scheduled sessions with a painter for portraits. The process often took weeks and was so expensive that only the wealthy had their images preserved.

Only the most significant events were immortalized on canvas. However, even these historic events were not accurately presented in paintings. The painter “interpreted” the event, picturing the scene and the characters to achieve the impact that the artist desired.


How Was Photography Invented?

By the late 1700s many scientists had observed that silver salts (most commonly silver chloride) darkened when exposed to sunlight. In 1818, French amateur scientist and store clerk Joseph Niepce was the first to use this concept to create a photograph. He built, in effect, the first shoebox camera. At one end he punched a tiny hole and placed a metal plate coated with bitumen (an asphalt-like tar) laced with silver chloride against the other end. After a long (eight-hour) exposure time, an image was fixed on the metal plate.

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