Nicéphore Niépce

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The first ever-lasting photographic image was made by French photographer and inventor Nicéphore Niépce. Together with his older brother Claude, he was a member of the Niépce brothers for most of his career, focusing initially on the Pyréolophore, the world’s first internal combustion engine, before switching to photography. It’s interesting to note that he received little recognition for his contributions during his lifetime despite the fact that he is now considered one of the pioneers in the art of photography. His method of employing bitumen as a slow and affordable means to generate photoresist for printing plates gained widespread acceptance roughly two decades after his passing. After his passing, his former collaborator Louis Daguerre, who had invented his own photographic technique called the “daguerréotype” on the basis of Niépce’s original concept, captured a large portion of the spotlight. Thank goodness, later historians were able to identify his achievements through his “heliography,” bringing him back into prominence.

Early Childhood & Life

On March 7, 1765, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was born in Chalon-sur-Saône, Saône-et-Loire, to Claude Niépce and Claude Barault. Claude Niépce was a Chalonnais deposits collector and advisor to the King. Due to suspicions of royalist sympathies, his family, which also included his older brother Claude, younger brother Bernard, and sister Claudine-Antoinette Niépce, was forced to evacuate France during the French Revolution.

In order to continue his love of physics and chemistry, Joseph enrolled in the Oratorian Brothers College in Angers in 1786. He chose the name “Nicéphore” in honor of Saint Nicephorus, the Patriarch of Constantinople who lived in the ninth century. He excelled quickly in his studies of science and the experimental method, and soon after receiving his degree, he was hired as a professor at the institution.

Career of Nicéphore Niépce

Nicéphore Niépce served in the National Guard in Chalon-sur-Saône from 1788 to 1792 as a staff officer under Napoleon, spending time in Sardinia and Italy during that time. In 1792, he joined the Revolutionary Army as a staff officer. Due to health issues, he was forced to quit the army in 1794. He then took a position as Administrator of the Nice region but was reputedly forced to retire the next year due to a lack of support.

He went to Sardinia in 1797 with his family and his brother Claude, who had joined him in Nice; it’s thought that this journey gave the two brothers the idea to try out photography. In Nice, they started working on their first inventions in 1798, creating a novel combustion engine based on the idea of air expansion during an explosion.

He returned to his own country in 1801 with his family and brother to carry on their scientific investigation, where he was reunited with his mother, younger brother, and sister. They started living freely as affluent gentlemen farmers, cultivating beets and making sugar after taking control of their mother’s family properties, which she had been managing since their father’s passing in 1785.

The Pyréolophore, the world’s first internal combustion engine, was created and patented by the Niépce brothers in 1807 using controlled dust explosions of Lycopodium powder. The device was initially mounted on a boat that operated on the Saône River, and 10 years later, another engine with a fuel injection system was added.

The two brothers improved the Marly machine, which was originally placed in Marly-le-Roi and used to pump water from the Seine river to the Palace of Versailles, by participating in a competition launched by the imperial government in 1807. In December 1809, engineer Périer was granted the duty after they made various modifications to the model and were able to lift water 11 feet with a stream drop of 4 feet 4 inches.

Nicéphore’s curiosity about the new art of lithography and his lack of ability to pursue it led him to employ the camera obscura as a drawing aid, which sparked his interest in photography. He was motivated to find an alternative to tracing over the images in order to capture the “light paintings” produced by the camera obscura, just like Thomas Wedgwood and Henry Fox Talbot.

In his letters to his sister-in-law dated 1816, he makes the first mention of successfully photographing objects with a tiny camera on paper coated in silver chloride. He was only able to record “negative” images, which were entirely dark when exposed to light for viewing, and had dark areas throughout where there should have been light.

After experimenting with a variety of light-responsive materials, he focused on Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt that was used by artists as an acid-resistant covering on copper plates for etchings. He utilized the solvent lavender oil to rinse unhardened sections that were sheltered from light, exposing the base lithographic stone or metal plate after realizing that bitumen coating became less dissolved when exposed to light.

In 1822, he created the first ever permanent photographic image by contact-exposing a copy of an etching of Pope Pius VII, a technique he named “heliography” or “sun drawing.” The earliest surviving “photocopies” were made by him in 1825 and are engravings of a man riding a horse and a woman spinning a wheel, respectively.

He first succeeded in making a permanent snapshot of an image by employing bitumen coating and the camera obscura in 1824, according to letters he wrote to his brother Claude. He replicated that picture from his window image in 1826–1827 on a sheet of bitumen–coated pewter after the original copy was destroyed, making it the first known camera photograph in existence.

Together with Louis Daguerre, he developed the “physautotype” method, which uses lavender oil distillate as the photosensitive material to produce permanent photographic images.

After Niépce passed away in 1833, Daguerre proceeded to advance the technique and gave it the name “daguerréotype.” He also persuaded the French government to grant him an annual stipend, with a portion going to Niépce’s estate.

Bigger Works of Nicéphore Niépce

With the use of a camera obscura, Nicéphore Niépce invented heliography, which has earned him recognition as a pioneer in the area of photography. In 1822, he employed this technique to produce Pope Pius VII’s etching, the first ever permanent photographic image.

Personal Legacy & Life

While living in Nice, Nicéphore Niépce wed Agnes Romero in 1794. Isidore, the son of the couple, joined forces with Daguerre after his father’s passing.

Due to his brother’s financial struggles, Claude went to Paris and then England to gather money to renew the Pyréolophore patent, but he ended up blowing out a large portion of the family fortune. One year before his passing, in 1827, Nicéphore paid him a visit in London but was dismayed to see him delirious.

By the time Nicéphore passed away on July 5, 1833, from a stroke, none of his discoveries had received formal recognition. Because of his extreme poverty at the time of his death, the municipality had to pay for his burial in the Saint-Loup de Varennes cemetery.

Estimated net worth

The estimated net worth of Nicéphore Niépce is unknown.