Thomas Wedgwood Biography - A Pioneer of Photography

Thomas Wedgwood (1771 - 1805) from England was a pioneer in photography. It is believed that his was the first idea to capture an image using chemicals and optical instruments.

Picture Of Thomas Wedgwood

Thomas Wedgwood was born on 14 May 1771 as a third surviving son of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter. He was born in Etruria, Staffordshire, near the city of Stoke-on-Trent in England. In his early years he was educated at home. His father was a member of the Lunar Society, a club of scientists and intellectuals and Thomas was in company of painters, sculptors, and poets from the beginning of his life. When he was 15 he enrolled at Edinburgh University and stayed there for 2 years until his chronic illness (persistent headaches) prevented him from completing the studies. He was interested in educating children and found out that the majority of information children receive through sight. This focused him on images.

We don’t know when precisely started experimenting with chemicals and light but it is believed that he started before 1800 because there is a letter from James Watt to Thomas’s father Josiah where Watt thanks Josiah for instructions for “Silver Pictures” (pictures made by lightening of silver nitrate) and how James Watt will experiment with them. One of the ideas is that Thomas knew about silver nitrated and that it was his idea how to use it for making images. Thomas used paper and white leather coated with silver nitrate to make first images and noticed that leather is more light-sensitive. His main idea was to use camera obscura in his process but chemicals that he used were not sensitive enough and needed too much time to show any effect.

Still ill, Thomas went to Pneumatic Clinic in Bristol where he met Humphry Davy, chemist and inventor. In 1802, Davy wrote a text in London’s “Journal of the Royal Institution” with title “An Account of a Method of copying Paintings upon Glass, and of making Profiles by the agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver, invented by T. Wedgwood, Esq., with Observations by H. Davy”. The text explained Wedgwood’s experiments and results and how Davy influenced them. “Royal Institution” was not too powerful at the time nor its Journal, but this text nevertheless inspired other scientists and it was mentioned in chemistry textbooks that were published as early as 1803. Text was also later translated into French and into German in 1811. Problem with these images was that Wedgwood and Davy didn’t know how to prevent image from darkening once they got the image they desired (to “fix” the image). Resulting image would continue to darken on light and that could be preserved only if image was kept in darkness. If not, images would turn completely dark. Because of that it is not known if any of those images survived.

In 2008 a photogram appeared that was presumed at first to be Talbot’s (Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of photography and inventor of calotype). It represents and internal structure of a leaf and is marked in one corner with something that looks like letter "W". Talbot expert Larry Schaaf, thinks that it isn’t Talbot’s photogram (today’s name for shadow photographs) and that it could actually be by Thomas Wedgwood and that it could be dating from the 1790s. Photogram was intended to be sold at the auction and to achieve a seven-figure price. A couple of days before the sale the photogram was withdrawn in order to be thoroughly analyzed but it never appeared on the scene again. If it was authentic Wedgwood it would be a very important historic and scientific object.