Nicéphore Niépce was born in 1765 as Joseph Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône. From 1786 to 1788 he studied at the Oratorian brothers in Angers. Then he entered the National Guard. In 1789 he enlisted in the Revolutionary Army. With one of his two brothers, Claude Niépce, he always discussed inventive ideas. In 1807 their technological interests resulted in their invention of the world's first combustion engine, the Pyréolophore. On the 20 July 1807, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte signed the patent in Dresden. The brothers held the patent for 10 years. In 1817 they made the first successful attempt to use the pyréolophore as a boat engine.
|Reconstruction of Niépce's first camera|
image by Uwe Kulick (Image rights)
In the 1820s Niépce made a lot of photographic experiments. He used glass or metal plates coated with Bitumen of Judea - a tarlike substance normally used for waterproofing. In 1822 he made his first blue-prints of drawings with just light falling on a drawing that lay on such a plate. In 1824 he made the first photographs on coated lithographic stone with a camera obscura. The exposure time was several days. He also let the etcher Augustin Lemaitre try to use etching methods to make printing plates of enlightened bitumen coated copper plates. In this way they found a method of reproducing old copper engraving prints with new printing plates.
|Earliest preserved photo: backyard of Niépce's|
house in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes (Image rights)
In 1825 he asked the opticians Vincent and Charles Chevalier to improve his camera with better lenses. In 1827 he made etching attempts with enlightened coated tin plates. An unetched one of these images on tin is the earliest preserved photograph. It was the one that Niépce gave to the British scientist Francis Bauer after his unsuccessful attempt to convince the Royal Society in London of his invention. The image was owned by several scientists until shown in an exhibition in 1898, then it disappeared until it was rediscovered in 1951 by the son of Henry Baden Pritchard, a former editor of "Photographic News". It was in a very poor state then, but the research department of Kodak restored it.
In 1828 Niépce made images on polished silver plates which he exposed to iodine vapors after exposure.
In 1829 his partnership with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre began. In 1832 it resulted in a new photographic process with a distillate of lavender oil as a photosensitive agent, the first one needing less than than 8 hours exposure time. Niépce named their process the Physautotype. One year later he died. His son Isidore became the new partner of Daguerre. On the base of Daguerre's further inventions, photography was introduced to the public in 1839, but Isidore as his partner shared the high reward granted to them for the prestigious invention by the French government. Isidore didn't contribute further inventions to photography, but in 1847 his cousin Claude Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor proved that the family had further talent in that field by inventing a photographic process with negatives on protein coated glass plates.
Nicéphore Niépce's early photographic accomplishments with bitumen coatings, silver plates and lavender distillate may appear to modern photography enthusiasts as attempts of some kind of pre-photography-historic alchemy, but maybe he was the inspiration for Daguerre's success, and maybe Fox Talbot wouldn't have published his process without Daguerre's concurrent success. Probably the spread of acceptable photographic processes would have been delayed for years.