Editorial Feature

A History of Nineteenth Century Photography: Bringing Astronomy and Medicine into Focus

The Wet Collodion Process

The invention and establishment of the wet collodion process and the dry-plate negative led to great advancements in the fields of astronomy and medicine in the second half of the nineteenth century.  

The first article in this series explored the establishment of photography as the first objective lens to science but it remains to be seen how the process developed throughout the nineteenth century in the pursuit of reduced costs, faster exposure times, and the accessible multiplication of images. Frederick Scott Archer emerges as the leading protagonist in the next period of photography’s advancement.

Frederick Scott Archer's Contribution to Photography

When compared to his contemporaries, Daguerre and Talbot, Archer receives little attention for his pioneering photographic work, introducing the wet collodion process to the world. However, Archer did not patent his discovery and would die penniless six years after the introduction of the process.

The Liverpool Photographic Journal commented, “Mr. Archer’s disinterestedness cannot be too highly or substantially complimented… we perceive alike its value and generosity which bestowed it – free as air, for the public good.”

The Wet Collodion Process

Archer’s process made use of collodion, a solution of nitrocellulose in ethyl alcohol and ethyl ether to which soluble bromides and iodides were added.

A glass plate would be coated on one side in collodion and then immersed in a bath of silver nitrate to make it light-sensitive.

The method produced a glass negative capable of making highly detailed prints on salt or albumen paper. The process was also much faster than the daguerreotype method and cheaper too.

The accessibility of the wet collodion process increased photography’s use in science and society. Astronomers were thrilled with the advent of a method that did not take hours to capture the image of a single star.

Astronomy Using Spectroscopy

Spectrometers are instruments that measure the properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. A nineteenth-century spectrograph used photographic cameras as detectors in order to record the spectrum of the material of study.

The observation of the sun using spectrographs occurred as early as 1842, but it would not be until 1863 that British astronomer William Huggins and chemist William Miller would analyze the absorption spectra of Sirius and Capella, 8.6 and 42 light-years away from earth respectively.

Using the wet collodion process, Huggins and Miller were able to demonstrate that stellar atmospheres contain the same chemical elements found on earth. Approximately 90% of our knowledge about stars today has been possible due to spectroscopy.

Advances in Medical Science

The wet collodion process also found use as a tool for observation and dissemination of information in medical science. A major shift in medical observation had occurred following the French Revolution in 1789, which saw physicians attempt to make medicine more rational and less theoretical.

By observing living patients and practicing discectomies they recognized patterns of disease and illness, and the distribution of this knowledge contributed to the advancement of medical treatment.

The emergence of the wet collodion process allowed the duplication of precise images of medical patients, revolutionizing the ways in which doctors attempted to tackle illness and injury.

Following the American Civil War (1861-1865), thousands of paper photographs made from wet collodion negatives of wounded and diseased soldiers were used by the military in order to educate surgeons and doctors on medical practices. Wet collodion doubly strengthened the clinical gaze of the physician with the addition of an accurate means of visual reproduction of the observations they made amongst their patients.

Dry-Plate Negatives

The wet collodion process had its limitations. The wet plates were a restrictive part of the photographic process as they required immediate development. Richard Maddox announced the invention of the dry-plate negative in 1871 and by the end of the decade, it had developed for broad use. Dry-plate negatives used gelatin instead of collodion as the substance to bind light-sensitive chemicals to glass plates.

1874 saw the production of the first negative emulsions for chemical development, and four years later Charles E. Bennett discovered a method to increase the speed of emulsions by aging them in a neutral medium.

Revolutionizing the Field of Astronomy

This was a crucial development in astronomical photography, as it made capturing the thousands of stars in the night sky possible without waiting days for the exposure. Scientists were now able to buy prepared plates and expose them when necessary, rather than for example spending long periods of time preparing plates before observing the stars and planets.

By making use of more efficient photographic processes, scientists were able to record new observations in the field of astronomy. For the first time high-quality photographs of Jupiter and Saturn were captured, and in 1881 and good photography was taken of Tebbutt’s Comet.

Henry Draper, who had first made a daguerreotype of the moon in 1840, emerged again in 1880 by making a 51-minute exposure of the Orion Nebula. He continued to encapsulate the astronomical developments in camera work by taking a photograph of the entire nebula with even the faintest stars visible two years later.   

A Modern real image of the Orion Nebula taken with a telescope. Image Credit: David Herraez Calzada/Shutterstock.com

Bringing Photography into Colour

In 1873, the German chemist and photographer Hermann Vogel accidentally discovered a way to make photographic emulsions sensitive to colors of light other than blue. The American minister Levi Hill had claimed to have invented a color photographic process in the early 1850s, but regardless of what success he may have had, accusations of fraudulence marked his venture.

Conversely, Vogel’s discovery led to the making of various kinds of emulsions that would be sensitive to all of the visible colors of light. It would only be a year before the English astronomer Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney composed an entire optical solar spectrum, ranging from violet to infrared.

A Standard Tool in the Scientist’s Inventory

The advancements in photography from the 1850s made the visual medium more accessible to people of all levels of many societies across the globe. As a result, it became a more widely used tool in science and its authority as a means to record the observations of pioneers of new medical practices and the astronomical fields.

The finessing of the photographic process allowed it to capture evidence of details in astronomical observations that were previously almost impossible to record with any degree of accuracy.

Photography would continue to develop into the late nineteenth century as innovators attempted to tackle issues of reciprocity failure, by which point the camera had become a standard tool in the scientist’s inventory.

Sources and Further Reading


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