Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1839:
WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT

by John H. Lienhard

Today, let us accentuate the negative. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

William Henry Fox Talbot was born into a very upper crust British family in 1800. His mother was an artist and art collector who made sure he had a fine education. When he was only 32, Talbot became a Member of Parliament. He was also bent toward art, and horribly frustrated that he didn't have the manual talent for it.

Talbot eventually equipped himself with a camera obscura that cast traceable images on a piece of paper. But, even with that assistance, he complained, "the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold."

That was 1833. During the next year, he did some work in mathematics, then turned back to the problem of capturing images. He experimented with paper that he'd washed in table salt and treated with silver nitrate, so it would darken under sunlight.

Talbot's Calotype cameraHe made images by putting objects on the paper under the bright sun. At first, he could view them only under dim candles. Then he solved the problem of fixing the image so it could be seen in daylight. After another year, he'd improved sensitivity until he could expose pictures by admitting light into his cameras.

These images, however, were all negative ones. Light appeared as dark, and dark as light. But Talbot kept revising and improving his chemical processes until, in 1841, he was finally able to created multiple positive pictures from one of his negatives. At that point, modern photography, as we know it, was born.

Three others were simultaneously working on photography: Joseph Niépce and Louis Daguerre in France, and John Herschel in England. Niépce was first to capture an image. Daguerre improved upon Niépce's ideas and had a working process before Talbot did.

Talbot and Herschel were friends who compared notes as they worked. But Talbot was unique in creating negatives from which one could get multiple prints. His system came to dominate photography until we had Polaroid, and then digital, cameras.

And Talbot's rich legacy of images catches me off guard. You see, one of Talbot's favorite subjects was his home in Lacock, England. It'd been a thirteenth-century abbey that passed into private hands during the anti-Catholic reign of Henry VIII. Lacock Abbey, and the town around it, make up a living remnant of history. Now they're a favorite location for period TV and movies.

That abbey home has also turned up where you might not expect it — like the movie Moonraker (1958). Maybe its most apt use was in the first Harry Potter movie. I go back to a book of Talbot photos and find one of a witch's broom in a medieval doorway, along with views of the same gothic towers that surround Hogwarts Academy.

The dark side of Harry Potter has raised some eyebrows. But, what is life without that dark side? Talbot put that fact in special focus when he created modern film photography — when he showed us reality only after first catching it in its negative form.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


In Focus: William Henry Fox Talbot. (M. Greenberg, ed.) Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002.

L. J. Schaaf, Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, & the Invention of Photography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Selected Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot: 1823-1874. (Larry J. Schaaf, ed.) London: Science Museum, 1994.

H. H. P. Arnold, William Henry Fox Talbot: Pioneer of photography and man of science. London: Hutchinson Benham, Ltd. 1977.

Specimens and Marvels: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography. Bradford, England: National Museum of Photography Film & Television, 2000.

The image of a Talbot camera is from: H. H. Snelling, The History and Practice of the Art of Photography. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1849.

For an on line example of Talbot's photography, see:
https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock/things-to-see-and-do/page-2/

Some movies that've used Lacock Abbey (not including TV series).

I am grateful to Houston attorney Stephen Hamilton for suggesting the episode and to UH Art and Architecture librarian Margaret Culbertson for her counsel.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.