Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

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Joseph Nicéphore Niépce


French Inventor

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, born in 1765 in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, was the first to make negative photographic images on paper and positive photographic images on metal plates. He also invented a method of making multiple copies of existing pictures.

As a young man, Niépce served as an officer in the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte. After poor health forced him to resign from the military, he settled in Nice, where he married and became a government administrator. He returned to his family's estate in Chalon-sur-Saône in 1801 and, with his brother Claude, devoted his life to experimentation and invention.

The brothers' first invention, patented in 1807, was an internal combustion engine they called the pyréolophore. The engine used the same piston and cylinder system as a modern gasoline engine and worked well enough to propel a boat upstream. Because the lycopodium powder that fueled the engine was expensive, however, the engine never achieved commercial success. The Niépce brothers entered government competitions to invent a hydraulic ram and to find a substitute for indigo, a blue dye. Although their ideas received positive responses from the government and the scientific community, they lost the competitions.

Nicéphore Niépce next became interested in lithography, a new method of printing copies of drawings inked on stone. Since he could neither draw nor find the kind of stone required for lithographs, Niépce experimented with copying images on chemically treated paper using a camera obscura. (Painters had been using this simple camera—a wooden box with a lens at one end and a mirror at the other—for more than 200 years to help them draw more accurately.) In 1816 he wrote about his first successful experiment to his brother, who was in Paris promoting the pyréolophore. With a camera he had produced a faint negative image on white paper of a birdhouse outside his window.

By 1824 Niépce had discovered that bitumen of Judea, a kind of asphalt, is sensitive to light. Niépce took advantage of this property to invent a process of copying existing images onto a bitumen-coated plate. This process was later perfected by his nephew and used by printers for decades. Niépce's goal, however, was to capture new images on the bitumen-coated plate. On September 16, 1824, he wrote to his brother that he had finally obtained "a picture from nature as good as I could desire."

Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), a Parisian painter who was also experimenting with photography, heard about Niépce's success and wrote to him, asking for more information. Niépce, however, preferred to keep his work secret and replied evasively. After receiving a second request the following year, Niépce agreed to meet Daguerre in Paris on his way to London, where his brother was now living. In London Niépce showed what he called his heliographs to every British scientist he could meet and even sent examples to Windsor Castle. After five months of discouraging responses from the English, Niépce received another enthusiastic letter from Daguerre and decided to return to France.

Niépce sent a heliograph to Daguerre, who responded with detailed suggestions. Niépce, in turn, offered a partnership to Daguerre, who accepted immediately and proposed publishing the process as Niépce's discovery. They carried out their research separately, communicating via letters in a number code devised by Daguerre to maintain secrecy. They experimented with electric currents, iodine fumes, solar microscopes, and various exposure times. This fruitful collaboration was cut short by Niépce's death on July 5, 1833. Daguerre formed a new partnership with Niépce's son, Isidore. They were granted a government pension in 1839 in return for disclosing the technical details of both the original invention and Daguerre's new invention, the daguerreotype.


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Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

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