Joseph Nicéphore Niepce Biography (1765-1833)


Born in Charlon-sur-Saône, France in 1765, Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, by the age of thirty, had been a professor at an Oratorian college, a staff officer in the French army, and the Administrator of the district of Nice,France. In 1795, Niepce resigned from his position as administrator of Niceto pursue research with his brother Claude. In August, 1807, the brothers invented an internal combustion engine, the pyréolophore, which ran on powdered fuel. Claude left for Paris, and later went on to London in an attemptto generate interest in the pyréolophore, while Joseph stayedbehind.

By 1813, Joseph Niepce, never one to stick with one pursuit for too long, hadbecome fascinated with popular art of lithography. In lithography, an imageis placed on a stone and treated so that some areas repel ink and some areasretain ink. Since Niepce himself had no artistic talent, his son Isadore would make the designs for his lithographs. Niepce would place engravings (whichhe made transparent) on plates coated with light-sensitive varnishes and expose them to sunlight through a process he called heliography (sun writing). When Isadore was called up for military service, Niepce decided to find a way to produce images directly from nature.

Although by the late seventeenth century the camera obscura projected pictures onto paper and in the eighteenth century the German inventor J. H. Schulzeobserved that silver salts darkened when exposed to light, it was more than acentury later when Niepce combined these two concepts to produce photography. From his workroom, which overlooked the courtyard of his family's estate, Niepce made the first true attempt at photography in 1816. He used paper sensitized with silver chloride to capture a view from the camera obscura. This crude image faded away after a short time, and he could not find a means to render it permanent.

A short time later Niépce improved the same view by adding a cardboarddiaphragm in front of the lens of the camera obscura. He also used nitric acid to "fix" the image briefly. Niépce continued to capture the view ofthe estate's courtyard, but his improvements were in vain, because he stillcould not make images which would last.

From 1817 to 1825, Niepce experimented with producing negative and positive images etched on metal and glass with light-sensitive acids. Though the processes employed were totally different from the silver chloride process which eventually became photography, he was able to produce successful and permanentcopies of engravings.

In 1826 Niepce first used a professionally made camera obscura. The camera was made by Charles and Vincent Chevalier, famed Parisian opticians. On a summer day in 1826, Niepce used it to produce the first permanently fixed image from nature. The world's first photograph, a view of his courtyard on a pewterplate, had been exposed to sunlight for eight hours.

It was through the Chevalier brothers that Niépce came to know Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Daguerre, who had been trying to fix images onsilver chloride paper, was told by the Chevaliers of Niepce's success. He wrote the hesitant Niépce several times before Niépce began corresponding with him. Niepce and Daguerre finally met in Paris in 1827.

In London, Niepce had just discovered that his brother Claude, mentally ill,had spent much of his family's wealth on inventions which did not exist. Though Joseph Niepce did not want to reveal the details of his invention, he needed money to continue his work. On December 14, 1829, Niepce signed an agreement with Daguerre which allowed for a ten-year partnership between the two inventors. Their plan was to perfect Niepce's invention and share the profits equally. Unfortunately, Niepce died of a stroke on July 5, 1833, long before they had seen results. Daguerre's tenacity, however, assured the future of photography.

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