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Thomas Wedgwood (photographer)


Thomas Wedgwood (photographer)

Thomas Wedgwood

Thomas Wedgwood (14 May 1771 – 10 July 1805), son of Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, is most widely known as an early experimenter in the field of photography.

He is the first person known to have thought of creating permanent pictures by capturing camera images on material coated with a light-sensitive chemical. His practical experiments yielded only shadow image photograms that were not light-fast, but his conceptual breakthrough and partial success have led some historians to call him "the first photographer".[1][2]


  • Life 1
  • A pioneer of photography 2
    • Rumours of surviving photographs 2.1
  • Patronage of Coleridge 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


Thomas Wedgwood was born in Etruria, Staffordshire, now part of the city of Stoke-on-Trent in England.

Wedgwood was born into a long line of pottery manufacturers, grew up and was educated at Etruria and was instilled from his youth with a love for art. He also spent much of his short life associating with painters, sculptors, and poets, to whom he was able to be a patron after he inherited his father's wealth in 1795.

As a young adult, Wedgwood became interested in the best method of educating children, and spent time studying infants. From his observations, he concluded that most of the information that young brains absorbed came through the eyes, and were thus related to light and images.

Wedgwood never married and had no children. His biographer notes that "neither his extant letters nor family tradition tell us of his caring for any woman outside the circle of his relations" and that he was "strongly attracted" to musical and sensitive young men.

In imperfect health as a child and a chronic invalid as an adult, he died in the county of Dorset at the age of 34.

A pioneer of photography

Wedgwood is the first person reliably documented to have used light-sensitive chemicals to capture silhouette images on durable media such as paper, and the first known to have attempted to photograph the image formed in a camera obscura.

The date of his first experiments in photography is unknown, but he is believed to have indirectly advised James Watt (1736–1819) on the practical details prior to 1800. In a letter that has been variously dated to 1790, 1791 and 1799, Watt wrote to Josiah Wedgwood:

"Dear Sir, I thank you for your instructions as to the Silver Pictures, about which, when at home, I will make some experiments..."

In his many experiments, possibly with advice on chemistry from his tutor Alexander Chisholm and members of the Lunar Society, Wedgwood used paper and white leather coated with silver nitrate. The leather proved to be more light-sensitive. His primary objective had been to capture real-world scenes with a camera obscura, but those attempts were unsuccessful. He did succeed in using exposure to direct sunlight to capture silhouette images of objects in contact with the treated surface, as well as the shadow images cast by sunlight passing through paintings on glass. In both cases, the sunlit areas rapidly darkened while the areas in shadow did not.

Wedgwood met a young chemist named Humphry Davy (1778–1829) at the Pneumatic Clinic in Bristol, while Wedgwood was there being treated for his ailments. Davy wrote up his friend's work for publication in London’s Journal of the Royal Institution (1802), titling it “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.” The paper was published and detailed Wedgwood’s procedures and accomplishments, as well as Davy's own variations of them. In 1802 the Royal Institution was not the venerable force it is today and its Journal was:

"a little paper printed from time to time to let the subscribers to the infant institution know what was being done ...the 'Journal' did not live beyond a first volume. There is nothing to show that Davy's account was ever read at any meeting; and the print of it would have been read, apparently, if read at all, only by the small circle of members and subscribers to the institution, of whom, we may be pretty sure, only a small minority can have been scientific people."[3]

Nevertheless, the paper of 1802 and Wedgwood's work directly influenced other chemists and scientists delving into the craft of photography, since subsequent research (Batchen, p. 228) has shown it was actually quite widely known about and was mentioned in chemistry textbooks as early as 1803. David Brewster, later a close friend of photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, published an account of the paper in the Edinburgh Magazine (Dec 1802). The paper was translated into French, and also printed in Germany in 1811. J. B. Reade's work in 1839 was directly influenced by reading of Wedgwood's more rapid results when using leather. Reade tried treating paper with a tanning agent used in making leather and found that after sensitization the paper darkened more rapidly when exposed. Reade's discovery was communicated to Talbot by a friend, as was later proven in a court case over patents.

Wedgwood was unable to "fix" his pictures to make them immune to the further effects of light. Unless kept in complete darkness, they would slowly but surely darken all over, eventually destroying the image. As Davy put it in his paper of 1802, the picture,

"immediately after being taken, must be kept in some obscure place. It may indeed be examined in the shade, but in this case the exposure should be only for a few minutes; by the light of candles and lamps, as commonly employed, it is not sensibly affected."

Rumours of surviving photographs

Although unfixed, photographs such as Wedgwood made can be preserved indefinitely by storing them in total darkness and protecting them from the harmful effects of prolonged open exposure to the air—for example, by keeping them tightly pressed between the pages of a large book.

In the middle to late 1830s, both Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre found ways of chemically stabilizing the images their processes produced, making them relatively insensitive to additional exposure to light. In 1839, John Herschel pointed out his earlier published discovery that hyposulphite of soda (now known as sodium thiosulfate but still nicknamed "hypo") dissolved silver halides. This allowed the remaining light-sensitive silver salts to be completely washed away, truly "fixing" the finished photograph. Herschel also found that in the case of silver nitrate, thorough washing with water alone sufficed to remove the unwanted remainder from paper—at least, the type of paper Herschel used—but only if the water was very pure.

In 1885, Samuel Highley, an early photography historian, published an article in which he remarked that he had seen what must have been fixed examples of early pictures made by Wedgwood, presumably dating to the 1790s. His was only one of several latter 19th century claims alleging the current or former existence of improbably early photographs, usually based on decades-old memories or depending on questionable assumptions, which investigators determined to be unverifiable, unreliable or definitely mistaken.[4]

In 2008, there were widespread news reports that one of Wedgwood's photographs had surfaced and was about to be sold at auction. The photogram, as shadow photographs are now called, showed the silhouette and internal structure of a leaf and was marked in one corner with what appeared to be the letter "W". Originally unattributed, then attributed to Talbot, an essay by Talbot expert Larry Schaaf, included in the auction catalog, rejected that attribution but suggested that it could actually be by Thomas Wedgwood and date from the 1790s.[5] An authentic Wedgwood image would be a key historical relic, avidly sought by collectors and museums, and would probably sell for a seven-figure price at auction. Considerable controversy erupted after the announcement and Schaaf's rationale for such an attribution was vigorously disputed by other respected photography historians. A few days before the scheduled sale, the image was withdrawn so that it could be more completely analyzed.[6] As of February 2015 the findings, if any, had apparently not been made public and the image had not resurfaced.

Patronage of Coleridge

Wedgwood was a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and arranged for him to have an annuity of £150 in 1798 so Coleridge could devote himself to philosophy and poetry. According to an 1803 letter, Coleridge even attempted to procure cannabis for Wedgwood to alleviate his chronic stomach aches.[7]



  1. ^ e.g. Litchfield, book title et al.
  2. ^ Talbot, W.H.F. (1844). The Pencil of Nature, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1844. On page 11, Talbot acknowledges that the original 1802 account of Wedgwood and Davy's experiments, which he did not see until his own experiments were well underway, "...certainly establishes their claim as the first inventors of the Photographic Art, though the actual progress they made in it was small."
  3. ^ Litchfield, pp. 196-197.
  4. ^ Litchfield, appendix C.
  5. ^ An Image Is a Mystery for Photo Detectives, Randy Kennedy. New York Times, April 17, 2008.
  6. ^ , Issue 148, 9/28/2008E-Photo Newsletter. See first two articles by Alex Novak and Michael Gray. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  7. ^ [2] Coleridge Letters


  • Litchfield, Richard Buckley (1903). Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer; an account of his life, his discovery and his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, including the letters of Coleridge to the Wedgwoods and an examination of accounts of alleged earlier photographic discoveries. London, Duckworth and Co. Public domain, available free at (Includes the unabridged text of Humphry Davy's 1802 paper.)

Further reading

  • Batchen, Geoffrey (1999). Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. MIT Press.
  • Gregory, R.L. (2005). "Accentuating the negative: Tom Wedgwood (1771 - 1805), photography and perception". Perception 34 (5), pages 513–520.

External links

  • Biography on the Revolutionary Players website
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