Today, cameras without film. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We've recently been seeing
articles by historians who believe that many of the
old masters used a mechanical aid for their
painting -- something that reported the scenes with
greater precision than their own eyes would have.
Philip Steadman's new book, Vermeer's
Camera, analyses ten paintings. Each shows
exactly what one would've seen from a single point.
These are literally views through a pinhole camera.
They could be photographs.
So let's look at the word camera. It's
Latin for a large vaulted room. From
camera we get the word chamber.
(A comrade is literally someone who sits
in the same room with us.) We take our word
camera from an ancient device, perhaps the
very device used by Vermeer, called a camera
-- literally, a dark room.
Imagine a totally dark room with a tiny hole
through one wall. That hole projects an accurate
image of the outside world onto the opposite wall.
Without film, we can't really take a picture with
it, but we can trace the image with a pen.
Aristotle was familiar with that idea, and medieval
writers had a lot to say about it.
When I was young, photographic film was pretty
slow, and it came in large sizes. We used the
camera obscura idea to make something called a
pinhole camera. We'd punch a pinhole in
one end of a shoebox and mount film on the opposite
end, with everything sealed up tightly. Then we'd
point the box at a subject, uncover the pinhole for
just a moment, and we'd get a passable photograph.
Of course no one put film in a camera until the
nineteenth century, but cameras had lenses as early
as the sixteenth century. Kepler, who used one with
a fairly complicated lens system to make solar
observations in 1600, coined the term camera
The age of optical instruments was then upon us.
Now we would see telescopes and microscopes, as
well as elaborate camera obscuras. We also began
seeing remarkable improvements in the way painters
handled perspective. Vermeer lived at the very
apogee of this optical renaissance.
Thus photography did not have to fight for
acceptance the way so many inventions must. The
camera itself had been highly sophisticated for two
hundred years and just waiting for someone to find
a way to record a picture automatically. But that
couldn't happen until we had eighteenth-century
improvements in chemistry.
French lithographer Joseph Niépce finally
made the first photograph in 1826. It was an
eight-hour exposure of the view from his window,
formed out of hardened bitumen on a pewter
photographic plate. It'd taken Niépce ten
years of experimentation, but he provided the
long-awaited solution for a long-standing puzzle.
After two thousand years, he finally provided film
for the camera obscura.
Yet that was two centuries after Vermeer had shown
us his beautiful views of domestic Dutch life --
haunting, luminescent, and
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Newhall, B, The History of Photography. New
York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1964.
P. Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the
Truth Behind the Masterpieces. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001.
For the art of Vermeer, see: Vermeer, Jan
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 124.
The pinhole camera and camera obscura principle
illustrated in 1925, in The Boy Scientist
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.