Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1220:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1220.

Today, the first color photographs. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Color is such an overwhelming sensual experience. I sit at my desk in the muted natural light of morning, my eye tracing the subtle shadings of color -- book covers with dozens of browns, splashes of off-reds and greens -- wooden cases stained rust, off-white walls, colors that clash, mesh, and goad thought.

The French Academy of Sciences announced Daguerre's new photographic process to the world in 1839. Daguerreotypes had been in the works for over a decade. Now they marched into the marketplace with the full imprimatur of modern science. And the first question people asked was, "When will we have color?"

A cottage industry of hand-painted Daguerreotypes sprang up immediately. But people reacted much the way I reacted when I saw a colorized version of the fine black and white movie, Casablanca, on TV. It broke my heart to see the delicacies of shading in the original replaced with such revolting kitsch.

People quickly saw that you can't fake real color. Besides, the demand for color outran our knowledge of chemistry. When color film finally reached the market in the 1930's, we'd been trying to develop it for a century.

One myth of early color photography holds that the Rev. Levi Hill, of Westkill, New York, invented it as early as 1850. That seems too preposterous to take seriously, but art historian Joseph Boudreau looks more closely at Hill. When Hill announced his process, he was visited by a group from the New York Daguerrean Association. They told him to keep quiet or they'd wreck his lab. Daguerreotypes were becoming obsolete and they feared for their livelihood.

Hill bought a revolver and a mean guard dog, and he forged ahead. People like Samuel F. B. Morse inspected his work and declared it sound. In 1856, Hill published a rambling account of what he now called the Hillotype process. But he also used the book to attack the Daguerrean Association. They, in turn, got a court order requiring all copies of the book to be destroyed.

Hill nevertheless gave up the ministry to go full-time into photography. He suffered chronic bronchitis and believed that inhaling the fumes of photographic chemicals helped him. The fumes soon killed him, and he passed into photographic mythology.

Boudreau found a surviving copy of Hill's book and set about to replicate the process. It was long and difficult, but it actually worked. He managed to produce some dingy, but distinct, color Daguerreotypes. Hill had actually succeeded -- 80 years too soon.

When I saw the first color photos and movies in the 1930s, I didn't like their gaudy distortion of reality's much gentler colors. Boudreau's pictures, made with Hill's process, at least have some restraint. Of course his process was too complex to be practical, but he really had done it -- and far, far ahead of its time.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Boudreau, J., Color Daguerreotypes: Hillotypes Recreated. Pioneers of Photography: Their Achievements in Science and Technology. Springfield, VA: The Society of Imaging Science and Technology, 1997, distributed by the Northeastern University Press.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic and providing source material.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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