“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”
. Thomas Edison
Inventions can disappear as a result of civilisation, or regression. Two examples can be given of such eclipses. The first is that of the steam engine, which was most certainly invented around the 1st or 2nd century BC by Hiero (also spelled Hieron} II (c.306 – 215 BCE) of Syracuse. This invention was submerged until the 17th century. All the necessary elements for the rudimentary but nonetheless revolutionary manufacture of the steam machine were available in Hiero’s time: the boiler, possible as a result of the manufacture of the hard steels and the invention of soldering; the piston, specimens of which were made which seems to have had a satisfactory bore; the transformation of a rectilinear movement into a circular movement which would also lift, as in the Archimedes screw. Did the steam machine fail to see the light of the day because slavery made recourse to mechanical energy pointless? This is a riddle without an answer.
19 January 1736 – 25 August 1819
One afternoon in May 1765, a Scottish engineer James Watts had an idea that changed the world. Watt had hit upon a clever device to make the steam engine more efficient and more powerful. It was this device and his other inventions that made steam the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. An English engineer Thomas Newcomen (1663 – 1712) built the first practical steam engine in 1712 to pump water from coal mines. By the time of Watt’s birth, there were nearly a hundred Newcomen engines across Britain and several more in other countries.
Newcomen’s engine relied on atmospheric pressure to push down a piston inside a huge, open-topped vertical cylinder. This could only happen if there was a vacuum inside the cylinder, beneath the piston. Newcomen achieved the necessary vacuum by condensing the steam inside the cylinder back into the water, which takes up only a tiny fraction of the volume steam does. A system of valves allowed steam to fill the cylinder, then sprayed in cold water to condense the steam. Having to cool the cylinder down for each stroke of the piston, and then heat it up with steam ready for the next stroke, made the engine incredibly inefficient. It was this fact that Watt addressed that day in 1765.
James Watt was born in Greenock, a town on the River Clyde, west of Glasgow in Scotland.
His father was a ship’s instruments builder. Using a tool kit his father had given him, Watt became a skilled craftsman from an early age. Following a year working in Glasgow, and a year in London learning the trade of making mathematical instruments such as theodolites and compasses, Watt wanted to set up his own shop. After repairing an instrument for a professor at Glasgow University, he was offered a room there to use as a workshop and earn a living making and selling musical instruments as well as mathematical ones.
In 1783, Watt began experimenting with a model of a Newcomen engine. He quickly realised just how much fuel, steam, and heat Newcomen’s design wasted. Watt’s great idea of 1765 was the ‘separate condenser’. In Watt’s design, the steam was condensed in a chamber connected to but separate from the cylinder. The chamber was held at a lower temperature so that the cylinder could remain at boiling point, Watt patented his invention in 1769. The engineer and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton (1728 – 1809) went into business with Watt in 1779. Their partnership lasted until Watt’s retirement in 1800 and completely revolutionised the use of steam engines in the industry.
Below is James Watt’s attic workshop from his home at Heathfield. Watt was using the busts on the workbench to test a machine he invented to copy sculptures – a kind of three dimensional photocopier.
Until 1782, steam engines were still used only to pump water in coal mines. That year, on Boulton’s request, Watt invented a way to make a steam engine produce rotary motion, rather than an up-and-down motion – and the resulting ‘rotative’ steam engines were an immediate success. Before long, Watt’s rotative engines were installed in textile mills, iron foundries, flour mills, breweries, and paper mills.
Watt made many other important improvements to steam power – including, in 1782, the ‘double-acting’ engine where steam was admitted to the cylinder alternately above and below the piston – all choreographed by a clever system of automatic valves. He also invented a steam-pressure gauge and a way of measuring the efficiency of a steam engine. In 1788, he invented the ‘governor’, a device that automatically regulated the speed of an engine. Watt was also a respected civil engineer, working mostly on canal projects. He is credited with other innovations too, including a popular device for making multiple copies of letters. But the steam was his life’s work. In honour of his achievements in steam power, the international unit of power, the ‘watt’, was named after him.
One of many statues of James Watt
James Watt was a member of a very important society: an informal group of scientists, engineers, industrialists, philosophers, doctors, artists, and poets called the Lunar Society. This group of intellectuals typified the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment – that period of history when people began believing that science, technology, and reason could and should shape society. Their activities centred on regular meetings which were often held at the house of Matthew Boulton, also a member. In addition to the meetings, the members of the group were in frequent communication by letter.
The Lunar Society was very important in the transformation of Britain from a rural, agricultural society to an urban industrial one – it has been described as the revolutionary committee of the Industrial Revolution. The society’s name was derived from the fact that that the meetings were always held on the Monday closest to a full moon. The moonlight made it easier for members to get home afterwards.
7 March 1765 – 5 July 1833
A portrait of Nicéphore Niépce by French artist Leonard-Francois Berger. It is ironic that the inventor of photography does not have any photo of himself that has survived, that we know of anyway.
Less than 200 years ago, there was practically no way of producing a lasting image of a scene other than by drawing or painting it. Photography, invented by French scientist Nicéphore Niépce, has had a profound effect on art, education, history, and science.
He was born in Chalon-sur-Saone, France. His father was a steward to a duke, but little else is known of his childhood. When he was 21, he left home to study at a Catholic oratory school in Angers, where he became interested in physics and chemistry. His first name was originally Joseph; he began using the name Nicéphore, which means ‘victory-bearer’, when he joined the fight against the monarchy in the French Revolution in 1788.
It was in 1793 that Niépce first had an idea of producing permanent images. Around the same time, he and his brother, Claude (1763-1828), conceived of a new type of engine that would use explosions inside a cylinder to drive a piston. Together, they invented the world’s first internal combustion engine, the Pyreolophore. Its fuel was a highly flammable powder of spores from a fungus called lycopodium (which, quite coincidentally, was later used in photographic flash bulbs). They received a patent in 1807, and two years later the brothers entered a government competition to design a replacement for a huge pumping machine on the River Seine in Paris. Their ingenious idea was highly favoured by the judging committee but in the end, the pumping machine was never replaced.
Banks of the River Seine, Paris
Shortly after its invention in 1796, Niépce learned about a new method of printing illustrations, called lithography, which allowed artists to draw their design directly onto a printing plate, rather than having to etch it into wood or metal. Niépce couldn’t draw so he decided to try and project an image onto the plate instead, hoping to find a way to make the image permanent. To project the image, he turned to an existing technology called the ‘camera obscura’. Popular with Renaissance artists who wanted to produce an accurate representation of a scene, the camera obscura – literally ‘darkened chamber’ – is a simple closed box or room in which a lens cast an image on a screen.
In 1826, Niépce dissolved bitumen of Judea in lavender oil spread it on a polished pewter plate, and exposed it in his camera obscura for about eight hours. The result, View from the Window at le Gras, is the oldest photograph in existence.
There is also an 1825 copy of an earlier print. Niépce soaked the print in varnish to make it translucent, then laid it on a copper plate coated with his bitumen solution. After washing the plate in acid, he was left with an etching, from which to make this print.
Niépce had some success with paper coated with a light-sensitive compound of silver. Images did register on the paper, but they completely blackened when they exposed to light as they were removed from the camera. Also, this process produced negatives: the parts of the paper where the most light fell became the darkest parts of the resulting image. So Niépce tried using compounds that bleach in sunlight, instead of those that darken. In 1822, Niépce turned to a substance called bitumen of Judea, a thick, tarry substance that hardens and bleaches when exposed to light. His first real successes were in producing permanently etched metal plates. For this, he placed drawings on top of a sheet of glass, which in turn lay on a metal plate coated with bitumen. After exposure to light, for days at a time, he washed away the unhardened bitumen, then treated the plate with nitric acid. The acid etched into the metal wherever the bitumen was not present, leaving a plate from which he could make prints.
Three years later, Niépce began taking pictures of scenes, rather than ‘photocopying’ drawings. He dissolved bitumen in lavender oil and applied the mixture to pewter plates. Then he exposed the plates for several hours in his camera obscura. The bitumen bleached and hardened where the light fell, while unexposed bitumen – representing the darkest part of the image – was washed away to reveal the dark metal below. These photographs were not negative, but positive, images. The oldest photograph in existence, View from the Window at le Gras, is an eerie image of outbuildings taken from the first floor of Niépce’s house.
Below are a couple of etchings from his catalogue of images.
The Cardinal of Amboise
Ruins of an Abbey
After his initial success with bitumen on pewter plates, Niépce found a way to give better definition to his photographs, or ‘heliographs’ as he called them. He used iodine vapour to make the pewter darken. In 1829, Niépce began collaborating with a French artist, Louis Daguerre (1787 – 1851). Niépce died in 1833 but by 1837, Daguerre was producing images that only needed a few minutes’ exposures. He used copper plates coated with silver iodide, which were ‘developed’ after exposure to mercury vapour and then ‘fixed’ using a strong salt solution.
Daguerre had improved the process so much that he felt justified in calling his photographs daguerreotypes. In 1839, the French Government gave Daguerre’s process away patent-free, as a ‘gift to the world’, and paid Daguerre and Niépce’s son a handsome pension. Daguerreotypes became very fashionable, dominating early photography and spurring the development of subsequent photographic technologies.
View of the Boulevard du Temple taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris
Here are two of many monuments to Niépce
The Daguerre Memorial in Washington DC illustrates the global impact of photographic technology on the world
In 1845, William Fox Talbot ( 1800 – 1877), photographed The Ladder. Talbot invented the calotype process, which involves making prints from negatives.
William Fox Talbot
The Ladder by Talbot
An Oak Tree in Winter by Talbot, 1842
Recently, Martin Joseph wrote about the first photographers who captured wildlife on film. This is his text: “In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre invented a way to create a permanent image by using a camera. While the first daguerreotypes did require the subject to remain still for 15 to 20 minutes, this was quickly improved upon. By 1842, the British chemist John Frederick Goddard had reduced the exposure time to 60 seconds. A minute is still a long time to sit still and animals proved to be especially challenging subjects because even slight movement caused noticeable blurring.
Possible portrait of John Frederick Goddard
Two portraits of persons unknown by Goddard
French photographer and traveller Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey made the earliest surviving daguerreotypes of Greece, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. He stopped in Rome on a Mediterranean journey in 1842 and took pictures of cows reclining beside the carts they pulled to market – the earliest known animal portraits.
Another well-known early example was Jean-Gabriel Eynard’s 1845 study of a white foal.
Stereograph images are two nearly identical prints made with a double-lens camera, which are pasted side by side on a card. When viewed through a stereoscope, the two prints combine to create the illusion of 3D.
Photographer Frank Haes made a reputation for himself with his stereographs of exotic creatures at London Zoo in the 1860s and 1870s.
In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge was commissioned by the U.S. politician, railroad tycoon, and racehorse owner Leland Stanford to photograph a horse in motion.
Leland Stanford below
His famous set of pictures resolved the question of the position of a horse’s legs during a gallop, specifically, whether all four hooves were off the ground at the same time. They are when the hind legs swing near the front legs, but not, as you may expect, when the legs are outstretched.
Eadweard Muybridge below
Photographing animals in their natural habitats was a major challenge until the late 19th century when faster film and compact cameras came on the market. Congressman George Shiras III is called the father of wildlife photography. In 1889, he became the first to use camera traps – remotely activated with a motion sensor – and flash photography when photographing animals.
In July 1906, the National Geographic Society dedicated an entire issue to his stunning wildlife photographs of a lynx, porcupine, raccoon, grizzly bear, snowy owl, moose, and three bolting white-tailed deer in their natural settings.
Within two years, such photo essays helped National Geographic grow nearly seven-fold, reaching 20,000 subscribers. Today, crittercams – cameras attached to an animal to study behaviour in the wild – are so light that they can be used on fish. Camera traps can be set up for months at a time, capturing hundreds of thousands of photos.”
Thank you, Mr. Joseph.
“Is that the time? I must be going!”
“I will look after you always.”
Enjoying a dip!
The importance of eyes
I think therefore I am.
I hope you are smiling as I am. This is proof of the influence that nature has on our wellbeing.