go to HOME


  The research archive of Gary W. Ewer regarding the history of the daguerreotype

The following text is from Samuel Adams Drake, "Our World's Great Benefactors. Short Biographies of the Men and Women most Eminent in Philanthropy, Patriotism, Art, Literature, Discovery, Science, Invention" (Augusta, ME: E. E. Knowles & Co., 1891) pp. 680-7. The text is accompanied by a full-page illustration of a portrait of Daguerre with surrounding ornamentation. The illustration is available (temporarily) at: http://www.ieway.com/gary/gb/ljmd_in_great_benefactors.jpg - - - - - L. J. M. DAGUERRE. [BORN 1789. DIED 1851.] AT the session of the French Academy of Sciences, held in January, 1839, M. Arago announced the remarkable discovery made by their countryman, M. Louis Jacques Daguerre, by which the long-sought method of fixing the images of the camera obscura had at length been perfected. M. Daguerre had explained in advance confidentially to M. Arago the processes by which this result had been secured; so that the able and learned speaker was able to give a full and lucid account of this most interesting, admirable, and valuable achievement in the interest of both science and art, -- for to these twin branches its benefits were at first believed most to accrue. But even M. Arago's forecast, sound and discriminating as it was, fell far short of developing the ultimate value of Daguerre's discovery to mankind; for instead of its inuring exclusively to the benefit of science or art, or of either of them, it speedily passed into the possession of the whole civilized world, and became domesticated in every household to whose treasures of affection or memory it had contributed so priceless a gift. Still, even within the limitations which were supposed at first to govern it, the discovery produced a startling impression upon the public. Daguerre had gone no further at this time than to reproduce upon his plates such architectural objects as were familiar to the Parisians, and might therefore be easily recognized; but this feat, affording as it did the best test of the fidelity of Daguerre's processes, was quite enough to establish the fact that a great discovery had been made, and to fix a starting-point for the astonishing development that has succeeded Daguerre's original efforts. Let us trace the progress of the discovery a little, in order to show how far Daguerre may he entitled to the name that we have assigned to him of a benefactor of the race. It is about two centuries ago since a Neapolitan scientist by the name of Giovanni Battista Porta discovered the camera obscura, or dark chamber, in which the images projected by a sun-ray upon the dark background of the chamber were reproduced with the utmost fidelity. But this was considered as no more than a curious phenomenon, and as such, attracted much attention from learned and unlearned. There the invention rested until Wedgwood, as we have stated in our sketch of him, attempted the transfer of objects, and also of paintings, sculptures, and engravings to his ware. Davy also made some experiments with the same general view; but neither succeeded in obtaining the results he aimed at for want of knowledge of the proper chemical substances to hold the pictures he had obtained, which faded or turned black as soon as exposed to the light. The matter was, however, too interesting to be dropped. In 1814 a Frenchman named Niepce turned his attention to the same subject, pursuing it indefatigably until he had worked out his own ideas; and it is to him, more than to any other, Daguerre excepted, that the final and signal success of the great invention is due. Niepce's first efforts were directed to the fixing of silhouettes by chemical substances. For years he pursued his favorite idea until he had perfected a process by which he was able to do what Wedgwood and Davy had failed to accomplish; namely, to copy engravings by the aid of the camera. Up to this point, where Niepce was joined by Daguerre as co-laborer in the purpose to work out the discovery to a practical solution, no one seems to have heard anything of Daguerre in connection with it, although M. Arago asserts that Daguerre had for several years been assiduously engaged upon the same thing as Niepce, each being ignorant of the other's purpose. Daguerre was born at Cormeilles in 1789. From infancy he showed a predilection for designing. He came to Paris, like so many other young men of talent, in search of the career that the great metropolis had opened to his ardent imagination. His inclination for drawing, the proficiency he soon showed in that particular branch of art, procured him a situation as scene painter and decorator of the theatres of Paris; and in this profession he rapidly took a leading place. Daguerre's inventive genius soon asserted itself. He introduced many pleasing illusions by means of his art, to the wonder and delight of the Parisians; but his greatest success as a painter came when he opened to the public his diorama, which was at that time a novelty in scenic representation. It had an immense popularity. The arrangement was a circular hall having a movable floor, which, by turning with the spectators upon it, transferred them without inconvenience before the successive series of pictures with marvellous realistic effect. The diorama was, however, destroyed by fire. At this epoch, therefore, we find that Daguerre was an artist of merit in his particular line who had made a study of, and had introduced many novel optical effects into, scenic display in the theatre. His native ingenuity and invention had been shown too in working out the various improvements introduced by him; but we are absolutely without knowledge respecting his earlier experiments with the camera obscura, or of the reasons which had induced him to set about the elucidation of its problems with all the energy of his nature. It is certain, only, that he had been some time at work over them, when he heard of M. Niepce, whom he immediately sought out, and with whom he subsequently formed a partnership for perfecting the discovery upon which both were intent. This instrument, which was signed in 1836, was duly recorded, and is in effect an admission by Niepce of Daguerre's claims at that particular stage of the discovery, since it is hardly to be supposed that Niepce would have admitted Daguerre to an equal share of the benefits of his own protracted experiments unless corresponding advantage to himself had been made clear to his mind. We state this because it is asserted that while Niepce disclosed his processes to Daguerre, there is nothing to show what Daguerre offered him in return. It was understood and agreed that the new discovery should hear the names of both the contracting parties; but in consequence of a condition imposed by M. Daguerre himself, the new process took the name of Daguerre only, --hence, Daguerreotype. Niepce died in 1833, six years before the discovery was made public. It aroused a veritable enthusiasm. At the instance of the Academy the process was purchased by the State; and then, in a spirit most honorable to the nation, it was given to the public, -- Daguerre receiving an annuity of 6,000 francs, and Niepce fils, 4,000 francs. Daguerre continued to devote himself to the improvement of his processes. In the meantime an Englishman named Talbot had nearly secured the result achieved by Daguerre, and now appeared as his competitor for the honor of the discovery. His claims, however, were not allowed by the French Academy, to which body Mr. Talbot had submitted them, although his process differed from that of Daguerre in that Talbot took his images on chemically prepared paper instead of metal. In 1851, when M. Daguerre died, the art of photography was still in its infancy; but under the impetus of publicity, it has since made great progress. Not only his own process, but that of Talbot, has been entirely superseded by the improvements of Mr. Scott Archer, of England, glass being now used to receive the image instead of metal or paper, thus securing almost indefinite duplication of a subject. It should be stated, however, that Dr. J. W. Draper, of New York, was the first to obtain with enlarged lenses portraits by the process of Daguerre. From every point of view, the grand discovery of Daguerre is one of the most useful that has signalized the century we live in; and its possibilities seem all the greater when we consider its earlier achievements in the light of present adaptability to the multitude of purposes for which it may be employed. If printing is the art preservative of all arts, photography merits a still higher place, since it preserves for us an exact counterpart of the object itself, while printing at most secures only a history or a description, more or less accurate according to the ability of the writer to convey the impression he may have received. As a disseminator of the great works of art, photography has already proved a valuable means of art education to the masses. -------------------------------------------------------------- 01-08-00

Return to: DagNews