Nicéphore Niépce

Niepce camera

Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833) was a French inventor, most noted as one of the inventors of photography and a pioneer in the field. He is credited with taking the world’s first known photograph in 1825.

Among Niépce’s other inventions was the Pyréolophore, the world’s first ‘internal combustion engine’, which he conceived, created, and developed with his older brother Claude, finally receiving a patent in 1807 from the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, after successfully powering a boat upstream on the river Saône.

Niépce took what is believed to be the world’s first photogravure (a process whereby a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality print), in 1822, of an engraving of Pope Pius VII. Niépce did not have a steady enough hand to trace the inverted images created by the camera obscura, as was popular in his day, so he looked for a way to capture an image permanently.

He experimented with lithography, which led him in his attempt to take a photograph using a camera obscura. He also experimented with silver chloride, which darkens when exposed to light, but eventually looked to bitumen, which he used in his first successful attempt at capturing nature photographically. He dissolved bitumen in lavender oil, a solvent often used in varnishes, and coated the sheet of pewter with this light capturing mixture. He placed the sheet inside a camera obscura to capture the picture, and eight hours later removed it and washed it with lavender oil to remove the unexposed bitumen.

He began experimenting to set optical images in 1793. Some of his early experiments made images, but they faded very fast. The earliest known, surviving example of a Niépce photograph (or any other photograph) was created in 1825. Niépce called his process heliography, which literally means ‘sun writing.’

Starting in 1829 he began collaborating on improved photographic processes with Louis Daguerre, and together they developed the physautotype, a process that used lavender oil. The partnership lasted until Niépce’s death in 1833. Daguerre continued with experimentation, eventually developing a process that little resembled that of Niépce, which he named the ‘Daguerréotype,’ after himself.

For many years, Niépce received little credit for his significant contribution to the development of photography. But, it is now generally recognized that his ‘heliographic’ process was the first successful example of what we now call photography: an image created on a light-sensitive surface, by the action of light.

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