William Henry Fox Talbot Biography (1800-1877)


William Henry Fox Talbot, the son of an army officer, received his master's degree from Cambridge University in 1825. In 1831, he was made a member of theBritish scientific society, the Royal Society, for his expertise in mathematics. He came to be quite well known for his studies in calculus and in the translation of ancient cuneiform tablets though his greatest fame would come from his work in photographic science.

In 1833 he entered Parliament, but retired the next year and began experimenting with photography. Unbeknownst to Talbot, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was performing similar experiments in photography at the same time in France. While using a camera lucida to capture natural images from the shores ofItaly's Lake Como, Talbot realized that he lacked the drawing talent required to sketch the image on paper. Instead Talbot was inspired to find a means to record images without drawing. From 1834 to 1835, Talbot used wooden cameraobscuras, dubbed "mousetraps," to produce miniature negative imprints of objects on paper sensitized with silver salts. The exposure time for these images was about one half-hour. He fixed the images with a solution of cooking salt.

In 1839, Talbot devised an improved process to form a negative picture on transparent paper coated with silver salts. Such an image still required an exposure of at least a minute, but many positives could be made from a single negative image by exposing a second light-sensitive sheet through the negative image itself. Talbot called these images calotypes, from the Greek for"beautiful." This method of converting a negative to a positive is the basisfor modern photography, and for this reason Talbot is considered (along withJoseph-Nicéphore Niépce) to be one of the two founders of photography.

The announcement of Daguerre's process in France moved Talbot to present his"photogenic drawing" to the Royal Society in 1839. By the autumn of 1840, Talbot had discovered that gallic acid sped up the development of latent images,and in 1841 he patented his perfected process, now calling it the Talbotype. Unlike the Talbotype, Daguerre's process could not produce multiple prints of an image. But Talbot's photographs had a grainy quality and could not compare with the brilliant, minutely detailed silvered plates produced by Daguerre. Nevertheless, Talbot's process, once refined, would hold the key tothe future of photography.

Talbot published the first book illustrated with photographs in 1844, and pioneered flash photography of fast-moving objects in 1851. He developed a way to speed up the exposure of images by coating the photographic paper repeatedly with alternate washes of salt and silver, then exposing the paper in a moist state. This vastly reduced the exposure time required for portraits, and the agonizing effort required to remain still during a sitting was eliminated.

Talbot guarded his patent closely and worried about infringement of his rights to his invention. Without license from Talbot, British photographers were prohibited from using his new photographic process. In France, advances in photography were published freely. As a result, photography grew much faster inFrance than it did in England. In addition, Talbot often passed off other's ideas as his own. He incorporated, for example, J. F. W. Herschel's idea for abetter fixative into his patent. His claims continued to retard the growth of photography in Britain until his patent infringement suit against FrederickScott Archer's (1813-1857) collodion process failed in court.

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