Today, let us accentuate the negative. 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.
William Henry Fox Talbot was
born into a very upper crust British
family in 1800. His mother was an artist and art
collector who made sure he had a fine education.
When he was only 32, Talbot became a Member of
Parliament. He was also bent toward art, and
horribly frustrated that he didn't have the manual
talent for it.
Talbot eventually equipped himself with a camera
obscura that cast traceable images on a piece of
paper. But, even with that assistance, he
complained, "the faithless pencil had only left
traces on the paper melancholy to behold."
That was 1833. During the next year, he did some
work in mathematics, then turned back to the
problem of capturing images. He experimented with
paper that he'd washed in table salt and treated
with silver nitrate, so it would darken under
He made images by putting
objects on the paper under the bright sun. At
first, he could view them only under dim candles.
Then he solved the problem of fixing the image so
it could be seen in daylight. After another year,
he'd improved sensitivity until he could expose
pictures by admitting light into his cameras.
These images, however, were all negative ones.
Light appeared as dark, and dark as light. But
Talbot kept revising and improving his chemical
processes until, in 1841, he was finally able to
created multiple positive pictures from
one of his negatives. At that point, modern
photography, as we know it, was born.
Three others were simultaneously working on
photography: Joseph Niépce and Louis
Daguerre in France, and John
Herschel in England. Niépce was first to
capture an image. Daguerre improved upon
Niépce's ideas and had a working process
before Talbot did.
Talbot and Herschel were friends who compared notes
as they worked. But Talbot was unique in creating
negatives from which one could get multiple prints.
His system came to dominate photography until we
had Polaroid, and then digital, cameras.
And Talbot's rich legacy of images catches me off
guard. You see, one of Talbot's favorite subjects
was his home in Lacock, England. It'd been a
thirteenth-century abbey that passed into private
hands during the anti-Catholic reign of Henry VIII.
Lacock Abbey, and the town around it, make up a
living remnant of history. Now they're a favorite
location for period TV and movies.
That abbey home has also turned up where you might
not expect it — like the movie
Moonraker (1958). Maybe its most apt use was in
the first Harry Potter movie. I go back to a book
of Talbot photos and find one of a witch's broom in
a medieval doorway, along with views of the same
gothic towers that surround Hogwarts Academy.
The dark side of Harry Potter has raised some eyebrows.
But, what is life without that dark side?
Talbot put that fact in special focus when he
created modern film photography — when he showed
us reality only after first catching it in its
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
In Focus: William Henry Fox Talbot. (M.
Greenberg, ed.) Los Angeles: Getty Publications,
L. J. Schaaf, Out of the Shadows: Herschel,
Talbot, & the Invention of Photography.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Selected Correspondence of William Henry Fox
Talbot: 1823-1874. (Larry J. Schaaf, ed.)
London: Science Museum, 1994.
H. H. P. Arnold, William Henry Fox Talbot:
Pioneer of photography and man of science.
London: Hutchinson Benham, Ltd. 1977.
Specimens and Marvels: William Henry Fox Talbot
and the Invention of Photography. Bradford,
England: National Museum of Photography Film &
The image of a Talbot camera is from: H. H.
Snelling, The History and Practice of the Art
of Photography. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1849.
For an on line example of Talbot's photography,
Some movies that've used
Lacock Abbey (not
including TV series).
I am grateful to Houston attorney Stephen Hamilton
for suggesting the episode and to UH Art and
Architecture librarian Margaret Culbertson for her
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.