William Henry Fox Talbot, chemist, linguist, archaeologist, and pioneer photographer was born in Melbury Abbas, Dorset, on February 11, 1800. Talbot was educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge, and published many articles in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and physics.
He is best known for his development of the calotype, an early photographic process that was an improvement over the daguerreotype of the French inventor L.J.M. Daguerre. Talbot’s calotypes involved the use of a photographic negative, from which multiple prints could be made; had his method been announced but a few weeks earlier, he and not Daguerre would probably have been known as the founder of photography.
In 1802 Thomas Wedgwood, son of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood, reported his experiments in recording images on paper or leather sensitized with silver nitrate. Although he could record silhouettes of objects placed on the paper, he was not able to make them permanent and, to his disappointment, he failed to record a camera image.
Unaware of the work of Wedgwood and the French pioneers, Talbot, was led to invent a photographic process because of his inability to draw landscapes. On a holiday trip to Italy in 1833, the idea came to him of recording by chemical means the images he observed in his camera obscura.
By 1835 he had a workable technique: he made paper light-sensitive by soaking it alternately in solutions of common salt (sodium chloride) and silver nitrate. Silver chloride was thus produced in the fibres of the paper. On exposure to light the silver chloride became finely divided silver, dark in tone.
The resulting negative could be used to make any number of positives by putting fresh sensitized paper in contact with the negative and exposing it to light. Talbot’s method of fixing the print by washing it in a strong solution of sodium chloride was inadequate, and the process was not successful until February 1839, when Herschel suggested fixing the negatives with sodium hyposulphite.
When news of Daguerre’s process reached England in January 1839, Talbot rushed publication of his “photogenic drawing” process and explained his technique in detail to the members of the Royal Society some six months before the French government divulged working directions for the daguerreotype.
Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), published in six installments, was the first book with photographic illustrations. Its 24 (of a proposed 50) plates document the beginnings of photography primarily through studies of art objects and architecture.
In 1851 Talbot discovered a way of taking instantaneous photographs, and his “photolyphic engraving” (patented in 1852 and 1858), a method of using printable steel plates and muslin screens to achieve quality middle tones of photographs on printing plates, was the precursor to the development in the 1880s of the more successful halftone plates. He was not to see this development as he died on September 17, 1877, at Lacock Abbey, near Chippenham in Wiltshire