Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor

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Claude Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor (1805-1870)

Claude Félix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor (26 July 1805, Saint-Cyr, Saône-et-Loire – 7 April 1870, Paris) was a French photographic inventor. An army lieutenant and cousin of Nicéphore Niépce, he first experimented in 1847 with negatives made with albumen on glass, a method subsequently used by the Langenheim brothers for their lantern slides. At his laboratory near Paris, Niépce de Saint-Victor worked on the fixation of natural photographic colour as well as the perfection of his cousin's heliographic process for photomechanical printing. His method of photomechanical printing, called heliogravure, was published in 1856 in Traité pratique de gravure héliographique.[1] In the 1850s he also published frequently in La Lumière.

Near-discovery of radioactivity[edit]

In 1804 the German chemist Adolph Ferdinand Gehlen (1775-1815) had noticed that when a solution of uranium chloride in ether was exposed to sunlight, it quickly changed color (from bright yellow to green) and precipitated.[2] In the 1850s, Niépce de Saint-Victor was trying to develop color photography, using light-sensitive metal salts. Beginning in 1857, long before Henri Becquerel's famous serendipitous discovery of radioactivity in 1896, Niépce de Saint-Victor observed that, even in complete darkness, certain salts could expose photographic emulsions.[3][4] He soon realized that uranium salts were responsible for this anomalous phenomenon.[5] (Photographers in France, England, and Germany soon confirmed Niepce's findings regarding uranium.[6]) Niépce recognized that the "light" that was exposing his photographic plates was neither conventional phosphorescence nor fluorescence: the salts could expose photographic plates long after the salts had last been exposed to sunlight. Niépce's superior, Michel Eugène Chevreul, recognized the phenomenon as a fundamental discovery ("une découverte capitale"), pointing out that uranium salts retained their power to expose photographic plates even after six months in the dark ("encore actif six mois après son insolation").[7] By 1861, Niépce stated frankly that uranium salts emitted some sort of radiation that was invisible to the human eye:

Original : " … cette activité persistante … ne peut mème pas être de la phosphorescence, car elle ne durerait pas si longtemps, d'après les expériences de M. Edmond Becquerel; il est donc plus probable que c'est un rayonnement invisible à nos yeux, comme le croit M. Léon Foucault, … ." [8]

Translation : " … this persistent activity … cannot be due to phosphorescence, for it [i.e., phosphorescence] would not last so long, according to the experiments of Mr. Edmond Becquerel; it is thus more likely that it is a radiation that is invisible to our eyes, as Mr. Léon Foucault believes,[9] … ."

Note especially that Niépce mentions "Edmond Becquerel", the father of Henri Becquerel, who would later be credited with the discovery of radioactivity. Indeed, in 1868, Edmond Becquerel published a book, La lumière: ses causes et ses effets (Light: its causes and its effects), in which he mentioned Niépce's findings; specifically, that objects that were coated with uranium nitrate could expose photographic plates in the dark.[10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Niépce de Saint-Victor, Traité Practique de Gravure Héliographique sur Acier et sur Verre (Practical treatise on heliographic engraving on steel and on glass) (Paris, France: Victor Masson, 1856).
  2. ^ A. F. Gehlen (1804) "Ueber die Farbenveränderungen der in Aether aufgelösten salzsauren Metallsalze durch das Sonnenlicht" (On the color changes, via sunlight, of metal chlorides dissolved in ether), Neues allgemeines Journal der Chemie (New General Journal of Chemistry), 3 (5) : 566–574. From page 569: "Eine Auflösung von reinem salzsauren Uran wurde so weit abgedampft, daß sie in der Kälte ein trockenes Salz gab. Dieses wurde in einem Glase in absolutem Aether aufgelöst. Die schön citrongelbe Auflösung in einem ganz damit gefüllten Glase den Sonnenstrahlen ausgesetzt, wurde schon in einigen Sekunden verändert: sie wurde grünlich trübe und es schied sich ein schmutzig grüner Niederschlag aus, … " (A solution of pure uranium chloride was so thoroughly evaporated that it gave a dry salt in the cold [air of the lab]. This was dissolved in a glass of absolute [i.e., pure] ether. The beautiful lemon yellow solution, which quite filled the glass and was exposed to the sun's rays, was changed in just some seconds: it became a cloudy green and there precipitated a dirty green precipitate, … )
  3. ^ Rothman, Tony, Everything's Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (New York, New York: Wiley, 2003) Chapter 5 "Invisible light: The discovery of radioactivity," Archived 2012-02-05 at the Wayback Machine. pages 46-52. ISBN 0-471-20257-6 See also: Amazon.com .
  4. ^ Niépce de Saint-Victor (1857) "Mémoire sur une nouvelle action de la lumière" (On a new action of light), Comptes rendus … , 45 : 811–815.
  5. ^ Niépce de Saint-Victor (1858) "Deuxième mémoire sur une nouvelle action de la lumière" (Second memoir on a new action of light), Comptes rendus … , 46 : 448–452. From p. 449: "La feuille de papier doit être imprégnée de sel d'urane en assez grande quantité pour que sa teinte soit d'un jaune paille sensible; on la fait sécher et on la garde dans l'obscurité. Quand on veut expérimenter, on la recouvre d'un cliché; on l'expose au soleil environ un quart d'heure, on la rapporte dans l'obscurité; on la traite par une solution d'azotate d'argent, et l'on voit instantanément apparaître une image positive très-vigoureuse, … " (The sheet of paper should be impregnated with a uranium salt in a great enough quantity so that its color be of a noticeably pale yellow; one dries it and keeps it in the dark. When one wants to experiment, one recovers it with a plate; one exposes it to the sun for about a quarter of an hour, one returns it to the dark; one treats it with a solution of silver nitrate, and one sees instantly appear a very strong positive image, … ) On p. 450, Niepce notes that if a solution of a uranium salt is used to paint a design on sheet of cardboard and if the cardboard is then pressed against a sheet that was treated with silver chloride, an image of the design will be reproduced in the silver chloride. On the same page, he states that if a sheet containing a design that was painted with a solution of a uranium salt is held near a sheet that was treated with silver chloride, " … il se reproduira à 2 ou 3 centimètres de distance du papier sensible, … " (it [i.e., the design] will reproduce itself at 2–3 centimeters distance from the sensitive paper).
  6. ^ See, for example:
    • Mr. Peligot showed, to the French Society of Photography, prints made from uranium nitrate by Mr. Victor Plumier in: Bulletin de la Société française de photographie, 4 : 92 (1858). [in French] In the same volume, Mr. Delahaye also showed, to the French Society of Photography, prints made from uranium nitrate by himself and several others in: Bulletin de la Société française de photographie, 4 : 205 (1858). [in French]
    • Fournier d'Albe, Edmund Edward, The Life of Sir William Crookes, O.M., F.R.S. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1923), p. 389. From p. 389: "Niepce de St. Victor had discovered that uranium salts possessed the property of storing up light and giving it out in the dark, and in 1858 I took what was perhaps the first radium photograph in this country, by writing with solution of uranium nitrate on a card, insolating it [i.e., exposing it to sunlight], and then putting it face to face in the dark with a sheet of photographic paper; the image of the writing was reproduced on the paper."
    • Hagen, O. (1858) (Anwendung des salpetersauren Uranoxydes in der Photographie [Use of the nitrate of uranium oxide in photography] ), Monatsberichte der Königlich-Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (Monthly Reports of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science at Berlin), pp. 290–293. [in German] Reprinted in English as: Hagen, O. (1858 November 22) "On the employment of nitrate of uranium in photography," Journal of the Photographic Society of London, 5 : 75–76.
    • Further early photographers who confirmed Niepce's results are listed in footnote (11) on p. 56 of (Fournier & Fournier, 1999).
  7. ^ M.E. Chevreul (1858) "Influence de la lumière dans les actions moléculaires" (Influence of light in molecular actions), Comptes rendus … , 47 : 1006–1011; see especially page 1010.
  8. ^ Niépce de Saint-Victor (1861) "Cinquième mémoire sur une nouvelle action de la lumière" (Fifth memoir on a new action of light), Comptes rendus … , 53 : 33–35.
  9. ^ Foucault, Léon (1858 January 5) "Académie des Sciences. Revue scientifique. … Nouvelle action de la lumière sur les substances photogéniques; M. Niepce de Saint-Victor." (Academy of Science. Scientific review. … New action of light on photographic substances; Mr. Niepce de Saint-Victor), Journal des Débats Politiques et Littéraires, pp. 1–2. [in French] From p. 2: "Tels sont les principaux faits groupés avec beaucoup de discernement par M. Niepce de Saint-Victor, et qui tendent à démontrer que la lumière se fixe dans la substance de certains corps de manière à se dissiper ensuite sous forme d'un rayonnement imperceptible à nos yeux." (Such are the main facts [which were] arranged with great discernment by Mr. Niepce de Saint-Victor, and which tend to show that light is fixed in the substance of certain bodies [i.e., substances] so as to then dissipate in the form of a radiation [that is] invisible to our eyes.)
  10. ^ Edmond Becquerel, La lumière: ses causes et ses effets (Paris, France: F. Didot, 1868), vol. 2, page 50. From p. 50: "M. Niepce de Saint-Victor (1) a observé que des substances … , exposées à l'influence de la lumière, puis rentrées dans l'obscurité, agissent comme réducteurs sur des papiers enduits de sels d'argent que l'on met en contact avec eux, même longtemps après l'influence lumineuse. … l'augmentation d'effet quand la surface insolée est couverte de substances facilement altérables à la lumière, comme le nitrate d'urane … " (Mr. Niepce de Saint-Victor observed that substances … exposed to the influence of light, and then returned to the dark, act as reducing agents on papers coated with silver salts which one puts in contact with them, even long after the luminous influence. … the effect increases when the illuminated surface is covered with substances [that are] easily altered by light, such as uranium nitrate … )
  11. ^ On the controversy about whether Henri Becquerel knew about Niépce de Saint-Victor's earlier discovery of radioactivity in uranium, see:
    • Michèle Meyer and Erick Gonthier (June 1997). "Y a-t-il encore polémique autour de la découverte des phénomènes dits radioactifs?" [Is there still controversy about the discovery of radioactive phenomena?]. Science Tribune. 
    • Michel Genet (1995) "The discovery of uranic rays: A short step for Henri Becquerel but a giant step for science," Radiochimica Acta 70 / 71 : 3–12. This was part of a special issue of Radiochimica Acta which was reprinted in book form as: J. P. Adloff, ed., One Hundred Years After the Discovery of Radioactivity (Munich, Germany: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1996); see pages 3–12. Available (in part) on-line at: Google Books.
    • J. Fournier and P. Fournier (1990) "A. Niépce de Saint-Victor (1805-1870), M. E. Chevreul (1786-1889) et la découverte de la radioactivité," New Journal of Chemistry, 14 (11) : 785–790.
    • Fournier, Paul and Fournier, Josette (1999) "Hasard ou mémoire dans la découverte de la radioactivié?" [Chance or memory in the discovery of radioactivity?], Revue d'Histoire des Sciences, 52 (1) : 51–80. [in French] Available at: Persée (France)
    • At about the same time that Henri Becquerel made his discovery, the English physicist Silvanus P. Thompson (1851-1916) independently observed that uranium salts emit a radiation that can penetrate opaque materials. See page 104 of: Thompson, Silvanus P. (1896) "On hyperphosphorescence," Philosophical Magazine, 42 : 103–107. (Thompson also mentions Niépce de Saint-Victor's findings.)

External links[edit]