The Early History of the Camera
January 30, 2014
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The history of the camera dates back at least as far as Aristotle in the 4th century BC. The device mentioned in Aristotle's writings, the camera obscura, is not quite what we would consider a camera today (it didn't record the images that it produced), but it was the precursor to modern photographic devices, and the basic principle of the camera has remained surprisingly unchanged from those ancient times.
The Camera Obscura
The device known to Aristotle was rudimentary, but produced an accurate image. The camera obscura (literally dark room in Latin) is an enclosed space, dark except from one small point through which light may enter. The result is an image rotated 180 degrees on the wall opposite the entering light. While these early devices had no means of capturing the image, the image could be traced by hand. The earliest versions of the camera obscura were in fact full-sized rooms. Over the next 2200 years, the only major design improvement was to decrease the size to the point that it could be transported easily.
The next major advance in the history of the camera came around 1816 from French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. He inserted paper covered with silver chloride, which darkens when exposed to light, into a small camera. This captured the first photograph, but it was short-lived because Niépce had no means of removing the remaining silver chloride or preserving the image, so it continued to darken during viewing. In 1826, Niépce replaced the silver chloride with bitumen. The substance hardened when exposed to light, allowing the remaining material to be dissolved to produce a photograph similar to those of today.
Niépce teamed with Louis Daguerre in 1839 to create a practical photographic device. They used a silver-coated copper plate treated with iodine vapor. After the image was captured, they used mercury vapor to develop the photograph and a solution of table salt to preserve it. Niépce sadly died before the invention was brought to market, leaving us with the famed daguerreotype. It produced a single positive image rather than the negative image produced on modern film, and no technology existed to duplicate the image.
A year later, William Henry Fox Talbot developed the calotype, a process that uses a silver iodide coating to create a negative image on paper.
Technological Explosion and the Shutter
In the second half of the 19th century, photographic technology progressed quickly. The process and materials were continually improved with innovations such as the collodion process, wet plates and gelatin plates. Cameras came down in size to the point that they could easily be carried and even hidden, disguised as items like hats or pocket watches. Photographers experimented with single-lens reflex (SLR) and twin-lens reflex. Much development focused on reducing exposure time. Previously, exposure times were so long that plates could simply be exposed and removed by hand. Short exposure times required shutters, which were initially sold separately as accessories to the camera.
The end of the 19th century saw more developments, including built-in shutters and the advent of film. This led to cameras with features that are still present in modern devices. While much of the technology from the 1800s has disappeared, replaced by better designs, we owe a large portion of modern photography to the inventors of that era and their countless experiments with new materials and processes.
Photo credit: Flickr.