Henry Fox Talbot

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William Henry Fox Talbot
William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.jpg
William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.
Born (1800-02-11)11 February 1800
Melbury, Dorset, England
Died 17 September 1877(1877-09-17) (aged 77)
Lacock, Wiltshire, England
Occupation Inventor
Known for Inventing the salted paper and calotype processes
Spouse(s) Constance Talbot
Children Ela (1835–1893)
Rosamond (1837–1906)
Matilda (1839–1927)
Charles (1842–1916)
Parent(s) William Davenport Talbot
Elisabeth Fox Strangways
Awards Royal Medal (1838)
Rumford Medal (1842)

William Henry Fox Talbot (11 February 1800 – 17 September 1877) was a British scientist, inventor and photography pioneer who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries. Talbot was also a noted photographer who made major contributions to the development of photography as an artistic medium. He published The Pencil of Nature (1844), which was illustrated with original prints from some of his calotype negatives. His work in the 1840s on photo-mechanical reproduction led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. Talbot is also remembered as the holder of a patent which, some say, affected the early development of commercial photography in Britain. Additionally, he made some important early photographs of Oxford, Paris, Reading, and York.[1]

Early life[edit]

Talbot was the only child of William Davenport Talbot, of Lacock Abbey, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, and of Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. Talbot was educated at Rottingdean, Harrow School and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded the Porson prize in Classics in 1820, and graduated as twelfth wrangler in 1821.[2] From 1822 to 1872, he communicated papers to the Royal Society, many of them on mathematical subjects. At an early period, he began optical researches, which later bore fruit in connection with photography. To the Edinburgh Journal of Science in 1826 he contributed a paper on "Some Experiments on Coloured Flame"; to the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1827 a paper on "Monochromatic Light"; and to the Philosophical Magazine papers on chemical subjects, including one on "Chemical Changes of Color."

Photographic inventions[edit]

Latticed window at Lacock Abbey, August 1835. A positive from what may be the oldest existing camera negative.[3]

Talbot invented the first process for creating reasonably light-fast and permanent photographs that was made available to the public, although his was neither the first such process invented nor the first one publicly announced.

Shortly after Louis Daguerre's invention of the daguerreotype was announced in early January 1839, without details, Talbot asserted priority of invention based on experiments he had begun in early 1834. He showed some three-and-a-half-year-old photographs on paper at the Royal Institution on 25 January 1839. Within a fortnight, he communicated the basic technical details of his photogenic drawing process to the Royal Society; Daguerre did not reveal the details of his process until mid-August, although by the spring it had become clear that it was very different from Talbot's.

Talbot's early "photogenic drawing" or salted paper process used writing paper bathed in a weak solution of ordinary table salt (sodium chloride), dried, then brushed on one side with a strong solution of silver nitrate, which created a tenacious coating of very light-sensitive silver chloride that darkened where it was exposed to light. Whether used to create photograms (shadow images) by placing objects on it and setting it out in the sunlight, or to capture the dim images formed by a lens in a camera, it was a printing out process, meaning that the exposure had to continue until the desired degree of darkening had been produced. In the case of camera images, that could mean an exposure of an hour or two if something more than a silhouette of objects against a bright sky was wanted. Earlier experimenters such as Thomas Wedgwood and Nicéphore Niépce had captured shadows and camera images on silver chloride years before, but they could find no way to prevent their photographs from fatally darkening all over when exposed to daylight. Talbot devised several ways of chemically stabilizing his results, making them sufficiently insensitive to further exposure that direct sunlight could be used to print the negative image that was produced in the camera onto other sheets of salted paper, creating as many positive prints as desired.

The calotype or talbotype (he used these names interchangeably)[4] was a developing out process, Talbot's improvement of his earlier photogenic drawing process by the use of a different silver salt (silver iodide instead of silver chloride) and a developing agent (gallic acid and silver nitrate) to bring out a latent image on the exposed paper. This reduced the required exposure time in the camera to only a minute or two for subjects in bright sunlight. As with salted paper negatives, the translucent calotype negative made it possible to produce as many positive prints as desired by simple contact printing, while the daguerreotype was an opaque direct positive that could only be reproduced by copying it with a camera. On the other hand, the calotype, despite waxing of the negative to make the image clearer, still was not pin-sharp like the metallic daguerreotype, as the paper fibres degraded the image produced.

Talbot announced his calotype process in 1841, and in August he licensed Henry Collen, the miniature painter, as the first professional calotypist. Hill & Adamson are the most celebrated practitioners of the process. Another notable calotypist is Levett Landon Boscawen Ibbetson.

In 1842, Talbot received the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society for his photographic discoveries.[5]

Patenting controversy[edit]

Miss Horatia Feilding, half sister of Talbot playing the harp, c. 1842
London Street, Reading, c. 1845

Daguerre's work on his process had commenced at about the same time as Talbot's earliest work on his salted paper process. In 1839, Daguerre's agent applied for English and Scottish patents only a matter of days before France, having granted Daguerre a pension for it, declared his invention "free to the world". The United Kingdom and the British "Colonies and Plantations abroad" therefore became the only places where a license was legally required to make and sell daguerreotypes.[6] This exception is now usually regarded as both an expression of old national animosities, still smouldering just 24 years after Waterloo, and a reaction to Talbot's initial aggressive assertion of an extremely broad claim of priority of invention. Talbot never attempted to patent any part of his printed-out silver chloride "photogenic drawing" process.

In February 1841, Talbot obtained an English patent for his developed-out calotype process. At first, he sold individual patent licences for £20 each; later, he lowered the fee for amateur use to £4. Professional photographers, however, had to pay up to £300 annually. In a business climate where many patent holders were attacked for enforcing their rights, and an academic world that viewed the patenting of new discoveries as a crass hindrance to scientific freedom and future progress, Talbot's behaviour was widely criticised. One reason Talbot gave for patenting the calotype was that he had spent, according to his own reckoning, about £5,000 on his various photographic endeavours over the years and wanted to at least recoup his expenses.

1853 photo by Talbot

In 1851, the year of Daguerre's death, Frederick Scott Archer publicised the wet collodion process, which made it practical to use glass instead of paper as the support for making the camera negative. The lack of detail often criticised in prints made from calotype negatives was overcome, and sharp images, comparable in degree of detail to daguerreotypes, could at last be provided by convenient paper prints. The collodion process soon replaced the calotype in commercial use, and by the end of the decade the daguerreotype was virtually extinct as well.

Asserting a very broad interpretation of his patent rights, Talbot declared that anyone using the collodion process would still need to get a calotype license.

In August 1852, The Times published an open letter by Lord Rosse, the president of the Royal Society, and Charles Lock Eastlake, the president of the Royal Academy, who called on Talbot to relieve the patent pressure that was perceived as stifling the development of photography. Talbot agreed to waive licensing fees for amateurs, but he continued to pursue professional portrait photographers, having filed several lawsuits.

In 1854, Talbot applied for an extension of the 14-year patent. At that time, one of his lawsuits, against photographer Martin Laroche, was heard in court. The Talbot v. Laroche case proved to be pivotal. Laroche's side argued that the patent was invalid, as a similar process had been invented earlier by Joseph Reade, and that using the collodion process did not infringe the calotype patent in any case, because of significant differences between the two processes. In the verdict, the jury upheld the calotype patent but agreed that Laroche was not infringing upon it by using the collodion process. Disappointed by the outcome, Talbot chose not to extend his patent.

Spectroscopic Investigations[edit]

Talbot was one of the earliest researchers into the field of spectral analysis.[7] He showed that the spectrum of each of the chemical elements was unique and that it was possible to identify the chemical elements from their spectra.[8]

Other activities[edit]

Fox Talbot family grave in Lacock village churchyard

Talbot was active in politics, being a moderate Reformer who generally supported the Whig Ministers. He served as Member of Parliament for Chippenham between 1832 and 1835 when he retired from Parliament. He also held the office of High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1840.

While engaged in his scientific researches, Talbot devoted much time to archaeology. He had a 20-year involvement in the field of Assyriology, the study of the history, archaeology and culture of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq).[9] With Sir Henry Rawlinson and Dr Edward Hincks he shares the honour of having been one of the first decipherers of the cuneiform inscriptions of Nineveh. He published Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Researches (1838–39), and Illustrations of the Antiquity of the Book of Genesis (1839). He was also the author of English Etymologies (1846).

In 1843–44, Talbot set up an establishment in Baker Street, Reading, for the purpose of mass-producing salted paper prints from his calotype negatives. The Reading Establishment, as it was known, also provided customer service, making prints from other calotypists' negatives, copy prints, and even original portraits at its studio.


After many years of poor health, Talbot died in Lacock village, aged 77, and is buried there along with his wife and children.


See also[edit]


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Who's Who of members of parliament: Volume I 1832–1885, edited by Michael Stenton (The Harvester Press 1976)


  1. ^ Hugh Murray, Nathaniel Whittock's bird's-eye view of the City of York in the 1850s
  2. ^ "Talbot, William Henry Fox (TLBT817WH)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ A contemporary letter by Talbot states that his January 1839 Royal Institution exhibit included "...various pictures, representing the architecture of my house in the country ... made with the Camera Obscura in the summer of 1835." A basis for naming this famous image as the oldest among the surviving camera negatives of similar date is not apparent.
  4. ^ U.S. Patent 5171
  5. ^ BBC – History – Historic Figures: William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) BBC
  6. ^ "Early photography processes - daguerreotype". Edinphoto.org.uk. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  7. ^ Volker Thomsen (2013-05-01). "William Henry Fox Talbot and the Foundations of Spectrochemical Analysis". Spectroscopy. Archived from the original on 2014-11-20. Retrieved 2014-11-20. 
  8. ^ John S. Rigden (2003). Hydrogen: The Essential Element. Harvard University Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-674-01252-3. 
  9. ^ assyriology british library

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Joseph Neeld and
Henry George Boldero
Member of Parliament for Chippenham
With: Joseph Neeld
Succeeded by
Joseph Neeld and
Henry George Boldero