go to HOME


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

The following text is excerpted from "The United States Magazine and Democratic Review" (New York) Vol. 5, No. 17, (May 1839) pp. 517-518. - - - - - - - - - - NOTES OF THE MONTH. PHOTOGENIC DRAWING. The most surprising invention of science since the time of Sir Humphrey Davy, is that of Photogenic, or, as we prefer calling it, Lucigraphic, Drawing, by means of the sun's rays, which his sagacious mind thought possible, but which he failed to perfect. His experiments, nevertheless, became the seed of new attempts, which resulted, by a wonderful coincidence, in a simultaneous announcement of the new art in Paris and London. The following particulars from the French and English papers will give some idea of this new discovery in the fine arts. [From a French Journal of February.] MR. DAGUERRE AND HIS NEW INVENTION.--For some time past, Mr. Daguerre's discovery has been the theme of much marvellous and contradictory report. We are happy to be able to state some facts relative to this really wonderful discovery. This artist, to whom the public is indebted for the splendid subjects of the Diorama, has for several years, been engaged in making investigations into the properties of light, which he has pursued with all that ardour and patient perseverance which are the true characteristics of genius. After a series of observations made during nearly fifteen years, he succeeded in collecting and retaining upon a solid surface the natural light, and to embody the fugitive and impalpable, reflected on the retina of the eye, in a mirror, or in the apparatus of the camera obscura. Figure to yourself a glass, which, after having received your image, renders the portrait ineffaceable as a painting, with a resemblance, the most faithful to nature possible: such is the wonderful discovery of Mr. Daguerre. But what, it may eagerly be inquired, is the inventors secret? what is the substance possessed of such astonishing susceptibility, as not only to become penetrated by the luminous ray, but also to retain its impression, operating at once like the eye and the optic nerve, as the material instrument of sensation and the sensation itself? With this we are unacquainted. Messrs. Arago and Biot have made a report to the Academie des Sciences of the effects of Mr. D's discovery, but they have not defined the causes of the same; they have merely given descriptions. We are indebted to the kindness of the inventor for a sight of a collection of master-pieces, designed by Nature herself; all we can do is to state our impressions. As each successive picture met our view, it was a fresh burst of admiration. What delicacy in the half-tints, what depth in the tone of the shadows! how rich and velvety the effect of the parts in high relief; how salient the alto-relievo! One of the figures was a crouching Venus, seen under various points of view, each of which was a multiplied statue.-- Nothing could be more magical. But, it may be asked--How do you know that this was not the work of some able artist? The question is readily answered. Mr. D. placed in our hands a magnifying glass of considerable power, and then could we perceive, as in the inimitable works of nature herself; all the finely blending lines, invisible to the naked eye. There was a view of Paris, taken from the Pont des Arts; the minutest details, the interstices of pavements and brick work, the effects of humidity from falling rain--all were reproduced as in nature. On viewing the same scene through an eye-glass, the inscription over a distant shop, altogether invisible on the model, was brought forward in its proper degree of perfection. In the same manner, by the aid of solar microscope, the most minute objects were magnified several thousand fold; even gossamers floating in the air were rendered visible; and nebulae rendered with marvellous exactitude. From what we have here stated, some idea may be formed of the immense importance of this discovery to the student of natural history. Professor Morse, of New York, well known to the scientific world as the inventor of the Elective Telegraph, having been in Paris when Daguerre's invention was announced, had en opportunity of examining his specimens of this new invention. The following extract of a letter from Mr. Morse to one of the New York papers, gives some interesting particulars of the effects produced. "They are produced on a metallic surface, the principal pieces about seven inches by five, and they resemble aquatint engravings; for they are in simple chiaro oscuro, and not in colors. But the exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it. For example: In a view up the street, a distant sign would be perceived, and the eye could just discern that there were lines of letters upon it, but so minute as not to be rend with the naked eye. By the assistance of a powerful lens, which magnified fifty times, applied to the delineation, every letter was clearly and distinctly legible, and so also were the minutest breaks and lines in the walls of the buildings and the pavements of the streets. The effect of the lens upon the picture was in a great degree like that of the telescope in nature. "Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion. "The impressions of interior views are Rembrandt perfected. One of Mr. D.'s plates is an impression of a spider. The spider was not bigger than the head of a large pin, but the image, magnified by this solar microscope to the size of the palm of this hand, having been impressed on the plate, and examined through a lens, was farther magnified, and showed a minuteness of organization hitherto not seen to exist. You perceive how this discovery is, therefore, about to open a new field of research in the depth of microscopic nature. We are soon to see if the minute has discoverable limits. The naturalist is to have a new kingdom to explore, as much beyond the microscope as the microscope is beyond the naked eye. "But I am near the end of my paper, and I have unhappily to give a melancholy close to my account of this ingenious discovery. M. Daguerre appointed yesterday at noon to see my Telegraph. He came, and passed more than an hour with me, expressing himself highly gratified at its operation. But while he was thus employed, the great building of the Diorama, with his own house, all his beautiful works, his valuable notes and papers, the labor of years of experiment, were, unknown to him, at that moment becoming the prey of the flames. His secret, indeed, is still safe with him, but the steps of his progress in the discovery and his valuable researches in science are lost to the scientific world. I learn that his Diorama was insured, but to what extent I know not. I am sure all friends of science and improvement will unite in expressing the deepest sympathy in M. Daguerre's loss and the sincere hope that such a liberal sum will be awarded him by his Government as shall enable him, in some degree at least, to recover from his loss." Mr. Fox Talbot, an English gentleman, perfectly unconscious of Mr. Daguerre's operations, made the same discovery, and, after some years experiments, had succeeded in bringing it to even greater perfection than the other--when the announcement in Paris of the French invention astonished Europe. It was accompanied by the expression of Mr. Daguerre's determination to keep his process a secret until he should receive a national compensation. Mr. Talbot immediately communicated to the Royal Society the results to which he had arrived, with a copious description of the experiments by which he had produced them. . . .[Remaining eleven paragraphs not transcribed] -------------------------------------------------------------- 05-30-98

Return to: DagNews