Henry Fox Talbot

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William Henry Fox Talbot
William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.jpg
William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.
Born(1800-02-11)11 February 1800
Melbury, Dorset, England
Died17 September 1877(1877-09-17) (aged 77)
Lacock, Wiltshire, England
OccupationScientist and inventor
Known forPioneering photography
Spouse(s) Constance Talbot
ChildrenEla (1835–1893)
Rosamond (1837–1906)
Matilda (1839–1927)
Charles (1842–1916)
Parent(s)William Davenport Talbot
Elisabeth Fox Strangways
Awards Royal Medal (1838)
Rumford Medal (1842)

William Henry Fox Talbot FRS FRSE FRAS ( /ˈtɔːlbət/ ; 11 February 1800 17 September 1877) was an English scientist, inventor and photography pioneer who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries. His work, in the 1840s on photomechanical reproduction, led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. He was the holder of a controversial patent which affected the early development of commercial photography in Britain. He was also a noted photographer who contributed to the development of photography as an artistic medium. He published The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), which was illustrated with original salted paper prints from his calotype negatives, and made some important early photographs of Oxford, Paris, Reading, and York. [1]

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the UK Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

Royal Astronomical Society learned society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) is a learned society and charity that encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. Its headquarters are in Burlington House, on Piccadilly in London. The society has over 4,000 members, termed Fellows, most of them professional researchers or postgraduate students. Around a quarter of Fellows live outside the UK. Members of the public who have an interest in astronomy and geophysics but do not qualify as Fellows may become Friends of the RAS.

Salt print photographic process

The salt print was the dominant paper-based photographic process for producing positive prints from 1839 until approximately 1860.


A polymath, Talbot was elected to the Royal Society in 1831 for his work on the integral calculus, and researched in optics, chemistry, electricity and other subjects such as etymology and ancient history.

Polymath Individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects

A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The term entered the lexicon in the 20th century and has now been applied to great thinkers living before and after the Renaissance.

Royal Society English learned society for science

The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, is a learned society. Founded on 28 November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as "The Royal Society". It is the oldest national scientific institution in the world. The society is the United Kingdom's and Commonwealth of Nations' Academy of Sciences and fulfils a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global co-operation, education and public engagement.

Optics The branch of physics that studies light

Optics is the branch of physics that studies the behaviour and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behaviour of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Because light is an electromagnetic wave, other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, and radio waves exhibit similar properties.

Early life

Talbot was the only child of William Davenport Talbot, of Lacock Abbey, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, and of Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. His governess was Agnes Porter who had also educated his mother. [2] Talbot was educated at Rottingdean, Harrow School and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded the Porson Prize in Classics in 1820, and graduated as twelfth wrangler in 1821. [3] From 1822 to 1872, he communicated papers to the Royal Society, many of them on mathematical subjects. At an early period, he began optical researches, which later bore fruit in connection with photography. To the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1826 he contributed a paper on "Some Experiments on Coloured Flame"; to the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1827 a paper on "Monochromatic Light"; and to the Philosophical Magazine papers on chemical subjects, including one on "Chemical Changes of Colour." [4]

Lacock Abbey abbey

Lacock Abbey in the village of Lacock, Wiltshire, England, was founded in the early 13th century by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, as a nunnery of the Augustinian order. The abbey remained a nunnery until the suppression of Roman Catholic institutions in England in the 16th century; it was then sold to Sir William Sharington who converted the convent into a residence where he and his family lived. It was fortified and remained loyal to the crown during the English Civil War, but surrendered to the Parliamentary forces once Devizes had fallen in 1645.

Chippenham town in Wiltshire, England

Chippenham is a large historic market town in northwest Wiltshire, England. It lies 20 miles (32 km) east of Bristol, 86 miles (138 km) west of London and 4 miles (6 km) west of The Cotswolds AONB. The town was established on a crossing of the River Avon and some form of settlement is believed to have existed there since before Roman times. It was a royal vill, and probably a royal hunting lodge, under Alfred the Great. The town continued to grow when the Great Western Railway arrived in 1841; it is now a major commuter town.

Henry Fox-Strangways, 2nd Earl of Ilchester Earl of Ilchester

Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways, 2nd Earl of Ilchester, known as Lord Stavordale from 1756 to 1776, was a British peer and Member of Parliament.

Photographic inventions

Latticed window at Lacock Abbey, August 1835. A positive from what may be the oldest existing camera negative. Latticed window at lacock abbey 1835.jpg
Latticed window at Lacock Abbey, August 1835. A positive from what may be the oldest existing camera negative.

Talbot invented a process for creating reasonably light-fast and permanent photographs that was the first made available to the public; however, his was neither the first such process invented nor the first one publicly announced. [6]

Photography Art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation

Photography is the art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. It is employed in many fields of science, manufacturing, and business, as well as its more direct uses for art, film and video production, recreational purposes, hobby, and mass communication.

<i>View from the Window at Le Gras</i> first known photo, by Nicéphore Niépce

View from the Window at Le Gras is a heliographic image and the oldest surviving camera photograph. It was created by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827 at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France, and shows parts of the buildings and surrounding countryside of his estate, Le Gras, as seen from a high window.

Shortly after Louis Daguerre's invention of the daguerreotype was announced in early January 1839, without details, Talbot asserted priority of invention based on experiments he had begun in early 1834. At a meeting of the Royal Institution on 25 January 1839, Talbot exhibited several paper photographs he had made in 1835. Within a fortnight, he communicated the general nature of his process to the Royal Society, followed by more complete details a few weeks later. Daguerre did not publicly reveal any useful details until mid-August, although by the spring it had become clear that his process and Talbot's were very different.

Louis Daguerre French photographer, artist and chemist and inventor of the Daguerrotype

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, better known as Louis Daguerre, was a French artist and photographer, recognized for his invention of the daguerreotype process of photography. He became known as one of the fathers of photography. Though he is most famous for his contributions to photography, he was also an accomplished painter and a developer of the diorama theatre.

Daguerreotype First commercially successful photographic process

The daguerreotype process, or daguerreotypy, was the first publicly available photographic process, and for nearly twenty years it was the one most commonly used.

Royal Institution scientific education and research organisation based in London

The Royal Institution of Great Britain is an organisation devoted to scientific education and research, based in London. It was founded in 1799 by the leading British scientists of the age, including Henry Cavendish and its first president, George Finch, the 9th Earl of Winchilsea. Its foundational principles were diffusing the knowledge of, and facilitating the general introduction of, useful mechanical inventions and improvements, as well as enhancing the application of science to the common purposes of life.

Talbot's early "salted paper" or "photogenic drawing" process used writing paper bathed in a weak solution of ordinary table salt (sodium chloride), dried, then brushed on one side with a strong solution of silver nitrate, which created a tenacious coating of very light-sensitive silver chloride that darkened where it was exposed to light. Whether used to create shadow image photograms by placing objects on it and setting it out in the sunlight, or to capture the dim images formed by a lens in a camera, it was a "printing out" process, meaning that the exposure had to continue until the desired degree of darkening had been produced. In the case of camera images, that could require an exposure of an hour or two if something more than a silhouette of objects against a bright sky was wanted. Earlier experimenters such as Thomas Wedgwood and Nicéphore Niépce had captured shadows and camera images with silver salts years before, but they could find no way to prevent their photographs from fatally darkening all over when exposed to daylight. Talbot devised several ways of chemically stabilizing his results, making them sufficiently insensitive to further exposure that direct sunlight could be used to print the negative image produced in the camera onto another sheet of salted paper, creating a positive.

Sodium chloride Chemical compound

Sodium chloride, commonly known as salt, is an ionic compound with the chemical formula NaCl, representing a 1:1 ratio of sodium and chloride ions. With molar masses of 22.99 and 35.45 g/mol respectively, 100 g of NaCl contains 39.34 g Na and 60.66 g Cl. Sodium chloride is the salt most responsible for the salinity of seawater and of the extracellular fluid of many multicellular organisms. In its edible form of table salt, it is commonly used as a condiment and food preservative. Large quantities of sodium chloride are used in many industrial processes, and it is a major source of sodium and chlorine compounds used as feedstocks for further chemical syntheses. A second major application of sodium chloride is de-icing of roadways in sub-freezing weather.

Silver nitrate Chemical compound

Silver nitrate is an inorganic compound with chemical formula AgNO
. This compound is a versatile precursor to many other silver compounds, such as those used in photography. It is far less sensitive to light than the halides. It was once called lunar caustic because silver was called luna by the ancient alchemists, who believed that silver was associated with the moon.

Silver chloride chemical compound

Silver chloride is a chemical compound with the chemical formula AgCl. This white crystalline solid is well known for its low solubility in water (this behavior being reminiscent of the chlorides of Tl+ and Pb2+). Upon illumination or heating, silver chloride converts to silver (and chlorine), which is signaled by grey to black or purplish coloration to some samples. AgCl occurs naturally as a mineral chlorargyrite.

The Calotype

Horatia Feilding, half-sister of Talbot, playing the harp, c. 1842 Talbot Harfe.jpg
Horatia Feilding, half-sister of Talbot, playing the harp, c. 1842
David Octavius Hill David Octavius Hill.jpg
David Octavius Hill
Photoglyptic gravure image of plants (c.1860) Talbot Gravur.jpg
Photoglyptic gravure image of plants (c.1860)

The "calotype", or "talbotype", [7] was a "developing out" process, Talbot's improvement of his earlier photogenic drawing process by the use of a different silver salt (silver iodide instead of silver chloride) and a developing agent (gallic acid and silver nitrate) to bring out an invisibly slight "latent" image on the exposed paper. This reduced the required exposure time in the camera to only a minute or two for subjects in bright sunlight. The translucent calotype negative made it possible to produce as many positive prints as desired by simple contact printing, whereas the daguerreotype was an opaque direct positive that could only be reproduced by copying it with a camera. On the other hand, the calotype, despite waxing of the negative to make the image clearer, still was not pin-sharp like the metallic daguerreotype, because the paper fibres blurred the printed image. The simpler salted paper process was normally used when making prints from calotype negatives.

Talbot announced his calotype process in 1841, and in August he licensed Henry Collen, the miniature painter, as the first professional calotypist. The most celebrated practitioners of the process were Hill & Adamson. Another notable calotypist was Levett Landon Boscawen Ibbetson. In 1842, Talbot received the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society for his photographic discoveries. [8]

In 1852, Talbot discovered that gelatine treated with potassium dichromate, a sensitiser introduced by Mungo Ponton in 1839, is made less soluble by exposure to light. This later provided the basis for the important carbon printing process and related technologies. Dichromated gelatine is still used for some laser holography.

Talbot's later photographic work was concentrated on photomechanical reproduction methods. In addition to making the mass reproduction of photographic images more practical and much less expensive, rendering a photograph into ink on paper, known to be permanent on a scale of hundreds if not thousands of years, was clearly one sure way to avoid the problems with fading that had soon become apparent in early types of silver image paper prints. Talbot created the photoglyphic (or "photoglyptic") engraving process, later perfected by others as the photogravure process.

Patenting controversy

The photographic workshop in Reading, 1846 William Fox Talbot 1853.jpg
The photographic workshop in Reading, 1846

Daguerre's work on his process had commenced at about the same time as Talbot's earliest work on his salted paper process. In 1839, Daguerre's agent applied for English and Scottishpatents only a matter of days before France, having granted Daguerre a pension for it, declared his invention "free to the world". The United Kingdom and the British "Colonies and Plantations abroad" therefore became the only places where a licence was legally required to make and sell daguerreotypes. [10] This exception is now usually regarded as both an expression of old national animosities, still smouldering just 24 years after Waterloo, and a reaction to Talbot's patent. Talbot never attempted to patent any part of his printed-out silver chloride "photogenic drawing" process and his calotype patent was not registered in Scotland.

In February 1841, Talbot obtained an English patent for his developed-out calotype process. At first, he sold individual patent licences for £20 each; later, he lowered the fee for amateur use to £4. Professional photographers, however, had to pay up to £300 annually. In a business climate where many patent holders were attacked for enforcing their rights, and an academic world that viewed the patenting of new discoveries as a hindrance to scientific freedom and further progress, Talbot's behaviour was widely criticised. On the other hand, many scientists supported his patent and they gave expert evidence in later trials. In addition, the calotype method was free for scientific uses, an area which Talbot himself pioneered, such as photomicrography. One reason Talbot later gave for vigorously enforcing his rights was that he had spent, according to his own reckoning, about £5,000 on his various photographic endeavours over the years and wanted to at least recoup his expenses.

London Street, Reading, c. 1845, a modern positive from Talbot's original calotype negative London Street, Reading, c. 1845.jpg
London Street, Reading, c. 1845, a modern positive from Talbot's original calotype negative

In 1844, Talbot helped set up an establishment in Baker Street, Reading, for mass-producing salted paper prints from his calotype negatives. The Reading Establishment, as it was known, also offered services to the public, making prints from others' negatives, copying artwork and documents, and taking portraits at its studio. [11] The enterprise was not a success.

In 1851, the year of Daguerre's death, Frederick Scott Archer publicised the wet collodion process, which made it practical to use glass instead of paper as the support for making the camera negative. The lack of detail often criticised in prints made from calotype negatives was overcome, and sharp images, comparable in degree of detail to daguerreotypes, could at last be provided by convenient paper prints. The collodion process soon replaced the calotype in commercial use, and by the end of the decade the daguerreotype was virtually extinct as well.

Asserting a very broad interpretation of his patent rights, Talbot declared that anyone using the collodion process would still need to get a calotype licence.

In August 1852, The Times published an open letter by Lord Rosse, the president of the Royal Society, and Charles Lock Eastlake, the president of the Royal Academy, who called on Talbot to relieve the patent pressure that was perceived as stifling the development of photography. Talbot agreed to waive licensing fees for amateurs, but he continued to pursue professional portrait photographers, having filed several lawsuits.

In 1854, Talbot applied for an extension of the 14-year patent. At that time, one of his lawsuits, against photographer Martin Laroche, was heard in court. The Talbot v. Laroche case proved to be pivotal. Laroche's side argued that the patent was invalid, as a similar process had been invented earlier by Joseph Reade, and that using the collodion process did not infringe the calotype patent in any case, because of significant differences between the two processes. In the verdict, the jury upheld the calotype patent but agreed that Laroche was not infringing upon it by using the collodion process. Disappointed by the outcome, Talbot chose not to extend his patent.

Spectroscopic and optical investigations

Photomicrograph of insect wings by Talbot using a solar microscope Photomicrograph of insect wings - By William Henry Fox Talbot.jpg
Photomicrograph of insect wings by Talbot using a solar microscope

Talbot was one of the earliest researchers into the field of spectral analysis. [12] [13] [14] [15] He showed that the spectrum of each of the chemical elements was unique and that it was possible to identify the chemical elements from their spectra. Such analysis was to become important in examining the light from distant stars, and hence inferring their atomic composition. [16] He also investigated the polarization of light using tourmaline crystals and iceland spar or calcite crystals, and pioneered the design and use of the polarizing microscope, now widely used by geologists for examining thin rock sections to identify minerals within them.

Dandelion seeds (1858 or later) -Dandelion Seeds- MET DP106960.jpg
Dandelion seeds (1858 or later)

Talbot allowed free use of the calotype process for scientific applications, and he himself published the first known photomicrograph of a mineral crystal. Another photomicrograph shows insect wings as seen in the "solar microscope" he and others developed for projecting images onto a large screen of tiny objects using sunlight as light source. The large projections could then be photographed by exposure to sensitized paper. He studied the diffraction of light using gratings and discovered a new phenomenon, now known as the Talbot effect.

Talbot was very keen on applying the calotype method to recording natural phenomena, such as plants for example, as well as buildings and landscapes. The calotype technique was offered free by Talbot for scientific and amateur use. He was aware that the visible spectrum comprised a very small part of what we now know as electromagnetic radiation, and that powerful and invisible light beyond the violet was capable of inducing chemical effects, a type of radiation we now call ultra-violet radiation.

Other activities

Fox Talbot family grave in Lacock village churchyard Fox Talbot grave.jpg
Fox Talbot family grave in Lacock village churchyard

Talbot was active in politics, being a moderate Reformer who generally supported the Whig Ministers. He served as Member of Parliament for Chippenham between 1832 and 1835 when he retired from Parliament. He also held the office of High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1840.

While engaged in his scientific researches, Talbot devoted much time to archaeology. He had a 20-year involvement in the field of Assyriology, the study of the history, archaeology and culture of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). [17] With Henry Rawlinson and Edward Hincks he shares the honour of having been one of the first decipherers of the cuneiform inscriptions of Nineveh. He published Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Researches (1838–39), and Illustrations of the Antiquity of the Book of Genesis (1839). He was also the author of English Etymologies (1846). [4]


See also

The optical Talbot effect for monochromatic light, shown as a "Talbot carpet". At the bottom of the figure the light can be seen diffracting through a grating, and this exact pattern is reproduced at the top of the picture (one Talbot length away from the grating). Halfway down you see the image shifted to the side, and at regular fractions of the Talbot length the sub-images are clearly seen. Optical Talbot Carpet.png
The optical Talbot effect for monochromatic light, shown as a "Talbot carpet". At the bottom of the figure the light can be seen diffracting through a grating, and this exact pattern is reproduced at the top of the picture (one Talbot length away from the grating). Halfway down you see the image shifted to the side, and at regular fractions of the Talbot length the sub-images are clearly seen.


  1. Hugh Murray, Nathaniel Whittock's bird's-eye view of the City of York in the 1850s
  2. Joanna Martin, 'Porter, (Ann) Agnes (c.1752–1814)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 accessed 11 Aug 2017
  3. "Talbot, William Henry Fox (TLBT817WH)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. 1 2 Chisholm 1911.
  5. A contemporary letter by Talbot states that his January 1839 Royal Institution exhibit included "...various pictures, representing the architecture of my house in the country ... made with the Camera Obscura in the summer of 1835." A basis for naming this famous image as the oldest among the surviving camera negatives of similar date is not apparent.
  6. Boddington, Jennie & State Library of Victoria (1989). The new art : photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria : Fox Talbot and the invention of photography. State Library of Victoria, [Melbourne, Vic.]
  7. Talbot regarded the two names as interchangeable—see U.S. Patent 5171
  8. BBC – History – Historic Figures: William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) BBC
  9. Schaaf, Larry J. (9 December 2016). "The Reading establishment's 'hidden mysteries'". The Talbot Catalogue Raisonné. Retrieved 24 December 2017.
  10. "Early photography processes - daguerreotype". Edinphoto.org.uk. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  11. Online label for a diptych view of the Reading Establishment, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  12. Volker Thomsen (1 May 2013). "William Henry Fox Talbot and the Foundations of Spectrochemical Analysis". Spectroscopy. Archived from the original on 20 November 2014. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
  13. Talbot, H.F. (1826). "Some experiments on coloured flames". The Edinburgh Journal of Science. 5: 77–81.
  14. Talbot, H.F. (1834). "Facts relating to optical science. No. 1". Philosophical Magazine. 3rd series. 4 (20): 112–114.
  15. Talbot, H.F. (1835). "On the nature of light". Philosophical Magazine. 3rd series. 7: 113–118.
  16. John S. Rigden (2003). Hydrogen: The Essential Element. Harvard University Press. p. 22. ISBN   978-0-674-01252-3.
  17. assyriology british library


Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Joseph Neeld and
Henry George Boldero
Member of Parliament for Chippenham
With: Joseph Neeld
Succeeded by
Joseph Neeld and
Henry George Boldero

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