The many inventions of Nicéphore Niépce – The Inventor of Photography

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – the inventor of photography, produced the first permanent image of the world in 1825. However, before this invention which made him famous, he invented and contributed to the development of multiple other things.

Invention – A New Occupation for French middle-class

As a student, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) demonstrated strong inclinations towards physical and chemical sciences. After serving in the Revolutionary Army during the French Revolution, he settled in Nice with his brother Claude. There, they began investigations and experimentations on the concept of an internal combustion engine. This work eventually rendered possible their invention called the Pyréolophore, which was a boat motor that was the first internal combustion engine of the world. This invention, occurring in 1806, was a result of years of researches in manufacturing and engineering projects that the brothers executed since 1801.

This inclination towards invention was not an exception in the French middle class. The youngsters, apart from looking after family vineyards and lands, often ventured into this occupation that was new within Frenchmen post the Revolution. But while inventing became a passion for many, few were as productive as the two brothers. In that same year, they went on to create even more history.

Benefits of a competition

In 1807, the imperial government opened a competition. The Niépce brothers entered it and made technical enhancements to the water pump machine in Marly. The original machine pumped water into the Château de Versailles taken from the Seine River. It was built in 1684 in Bougival. Before the improvement, the machine pumped one kilometer and raised water by 150 meters. The brothers integrated a new hydraulic pump system with an advanced hydrostatic principle that enabled lifting of water by 11 feet with a four feet four inches stream drop.

Vélocipède by Nicéphore Niépce

Contribution in Evolution of the Bicycle

In 1818, Nicéphore Niépce became interested in Laufmaschine. Literally meaning running machine, this two-wheeler machine was the predecessor of the bicycle. German inventor Baron Karl Drais invented it in 1817 when people started selling horses because of poverty. Niépce built such a machine himself and improved upon it with the incorporation of an adjustable saddle. While the previous version was a two-wheeler, this improved machine had a platform joining these over which the saddle was placed. He called this new machine Vélocipède meaning fast foot.

Experiments with Lithography

Alois Senefelder invented the printing process of lithography in 1798. When it arrived in France in 1813, it immediately caught Niépce’s attention. He taught this technique himself in Chalon. But his approach towards the art was far from conventional. Niépce experimented with different acids and varnishes using diverse forms of supports. Following this, he attempted to impress designs over lithographic plates. This he devised through the contribution of light. Niépce developed this approach most probably to make up for the absence of drawing facilities.

By 1816, he was able to capture small images. Niépce’s acquaintance with the drawing aid of camerae obscura enabled him to achieve this. He captured these images on silver chloride coated papers. This made him the first person ever to have achieved success in this nature of attempt. But this effort had a flaw. The light areas ended up dark and vice versa. Moreover, he failed to prevent these images from fading.

The invention of Heliography

Following this, Niépce discovered that he derived the best outcomes by utilizing a solution called Bitumen of Judea. It is a natural asphalt that dates back to the period of ancient Egyptians. Niépce used it because the coating became less soluble post being exposed to the light. He dissolved it in lavender oil and coated it thinly on a sheet of glass or metal or lithographic stone. After the drying of the coating, the engraving printed on the paper was laid on its surface and then put in direct sunlight.

After exposing sufficiently, the solvent could rinse away only that bitumen which was unhardened as dark areas or lines on the engraving shielded those spaces from the light. The parts laid bare could be then etched using acid. Niépce defined this process as ‘Heliography’, which means ‘sun drawing’.

The oldest heliographic engraving known in the world.

niépce – the inventor of photography

In 1822, Niépce successfully used heliography and created a contact-exposed photographic image. It was the first photographic image of the world that had the quality of permanence. The work was an engraving copy of Pope Pius VII. This officially made Niépce the inventor of photography. However, he tried to create prints from it which destroyed it. But he kept on experimenting with bitumen over the next few years. He used zinc or pewter plates which could be inked to be printed.

Eventually, he made the oldest known photographic artifact of the world in 1825. A letter he sent to his son Isidore proved that this is the earliest surviving instance of his breakthrough. It is the image copy of an engraving with the depiction of a man who is leading a horse. The actual work was a 17th-century Flemish print. Niépce took a negative imprint of the image and utilized it to create this new picture through the method that he had devised. Therefore, primarily it was printed ink upon paper and so is entirely different from modern photographs. The most important stage in the creation of the plate was the etching through the action of light upon the light-sensitive chemicals of the metal plate. This then was used as a printing plate.


the early technologies of pictorialism

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