On this day in history : 11th February 1800 – The birth of politician, scientist, inventor and photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the early photographic process ‘Calotype’….

Fox Talbot by John Moffat – Public domain

Fox Talbot was born in Melbury Sampford in Dorset…. He was the only child of William Davenport Talbot and Lady Elisabeth Fox…. Sadly his father died before his first birthday – but his mother remarried in 1804…. Fox Talbot attended Harrow and then in 1817 joined Trinity College, Cambridge….

He married Constance Mundy in 1832 and it was also in this year that he was elected MP for Chippenham, Wiltshire…. It was whilst holidaying at Lake Como in Italy in 1833 that Fox Talbot became frustrated at his own inability to sketch the stunning scenery before him…. He began to form the idea of capturing an image on light sensitive paper….

Lake Como, Italy – Image credit : Luca Casartelli CC BY-SA 2.0

On returning to England he began to develop his idea in earnest and after just three weeks was ready to present his ‘art of photographic drawing’ to the Royal Society….

Others before him had conducted their own experiments; Joseph Nicephone de Niepce had produced pictures on bitumen and Thomas Wedgwood had made photograms…. Fox Talbot went on to develop the three elements of photography – developing, fixing and printing…. It was quite by accident that he discovered an image was present after a relatively short time of exposure – it was there but just couldn’t be seen – but by using a chemical procedure a negative could be produced, which could then be fixed with another chemical solution…. Fox Talbot called this process the ‘Calotype’ (also known as ‘Talbotype’)…. He patented it in 1841….

To simplify Calotype involved taking a sheet of paper coated with silver chloride which was exposed to light using a camera obscura…. This was a predecessor to the camera we now know…. It was a box, with the interior painted black and a tiny pin hole to allow the light to enter…. Those areas of the paper that came into contact with the light took on a dark tone creating a negative image…. Gallic acid would be used to develop the image….accelerating the silver chloride’s chemical reaction to light…. Before Fox Talbot’s accidental discovery it could take up to an hour for a negative image to appear on the light sensitive paper…. Gallic acid reduced this waiting time down to around a minute…. The image was then fixed with hyposulfite… The negative could be used many times by contact printing on to sensitised paper….

Fox Talbot was a man of many talents…. Among his other attributes he was also a mathematician, astronomer and archeologist…. He died on the 11th of September 1877….

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