Innovation, and the bringing of ideas to fruition, is not a linear process. It’s not straightforward; it’s usually an assembling of existing spare parts, building on the insights that have gone before to build something new.
Let’s take just one example: the camera. The story of which is actually rather unexpected, involving Catholic saints, British algae, the unleashing of impressionist art and lessons learnt from the selling of razor blades. Today, cameras are everywhere; most of us have one on our smartphone and we probably get caught on camera several times a day. However, it wasn’t always so. The earliest historical references to cameras are the ‘pinhole cameras’, or the ‘camera obscura’, discovered or created when a small window of light from outside projects an image onto a screen in a dark chamber. There are references to this phenomenon going back over 2,000 years, to ancient China in the era of Confucius and the ancient Greece of Aristotle.
Through the researches of many eminent scientists around the world over the next millennia, from philosophers in China and Greece, to Arabic and Byzantine mathematicians, the study of optics and the physics of light became much better understood and would later contribute much to the lenses that form part of the modern camera. However, in many ways the next few leaps in the story of the camera are not just about optics, they are about chemistry. It arguably starts with a discovery of
silver nitrate in a 13th century by a Catholic saint: Albertus Magnus. Albertus noticed that this substance blackened skin brought into contact with it. In 1614 Angelo Sala noticed that silver nitrate blackened in the light and also blackened the paper it was wrapped in. However, this insight was described as having no practical application by respected scientists of the era.
Around 1777, the German physicist Johann Heinrich Schulze accidentally left a bottle containing silver nitrate and chalk in the sunlight. It all turned black, except where a shadow had lain across the bottle. Many further chemists would contribute elements to future photography in this era. The discovery of silver chloride for example, or the use of ammonia to help fix an image on paper. The oldest surviving photograph is the work a French inventor Nicephore Niepce, who had served as a staff officer for Napoleon and was also the inventor of one of the first internal combustion engines and an early cycling enthusiast.
But it was Niepce’s collaboration with Louis Daguerre that would refine the hours or days long process of photographic exposure and really bring photography to the wider world. The first complete, practical, photographic process was announced by Louis Daguerre on the 7th of January 1839 to the French Academy of Sciences. Let’s return to lenses for a moment. The first spectacles were created in Italy in the late 13th century and enjoyed use largely amongst monks for reading and writing scripture.
It has been suggested that large-scale use of lenses only really got going with the advent of the printing presses by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, at which point many Europeans, only reading regularly for the first time, realised how deficient their eyesight was. Lenses led to magnification and to the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope in the Netherlands at the start of the 17th century. Already scientists in different fields were combining their developments in chemical advances and optics to create these early cameras. British inventor Henry Fox-Talbot, working just 25 miles from Bristol, was also working on similar and related ideas, as is often the case in invention.
Fox-Talbot had created stable photographic negatives in 1835 which could be used to print multiple photographs, as opposed to Daguerre’s method which created a single fixed photograph each time. Henry’s wife, Constance Fox-Talbot, is likely to have been the first female photographer and Henry’s introduction to the botanist Anna Atkins led to the first book with photographic illustrations. The, doubtlessly riveting, ‘Photographs of British Algae’ in 1843. So what else did photography lead to? In 1839 after the unveiling of Louis Daguerre’s photographic method, the artist Paul Delaroche is supposed to have declared, ‘From today, painting is dead!’. The truth is more complicated and more interesting.
Whilst photography did inevitably encroach on some aspects of the artist’s work, it was almost certainly one of the sparks that led to the new movements in art, moving away from what we might now describe as photo-realistic art. Impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism and surrealism all emerged in the wake of photography gaining ground. Later, in the 1860s, mechanical engineers were required to step into the fray. The improvement in chemicals and the first magnesium flashes resulted in shorter exposure times and engineers were required to ensure that the shutters could open and close quickly enough. The shutter noise is now synonymous with cameras, even being needlessly replicated as a sound effect in digital cameras.
Further improvements in chemicals, flashes and engineering allowed for photographs to be taken more quickly and so paved the way for photojournalism. Try and accurately imagine the early modern world without photography and it’s incredibly difficult. Photographs are now part of how we view the world and with this comes an immense power. If you want just one example, then consider the Earthrise photograph taken by the astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 from the Apollo 8 spacecraft, orbiting the moon. The first colour photograph of the Earth from space, and how that first image of our home planet has the power to put all our earthly cares and concerns into perspective.
In 1884 George Eastman of Rochester, New York developed film to replace photographic plates, instantly reducing the burden of professional photographers. In 1888 Eastman produced the Kodak camera with a slogan, ‘you push the button, we do the rest.’ The Kodak model of selling cheap, mass-produced cameras and making money on the consumable film sales was inspired by the sale of shaving razors and separate blades. Colour photography, automatic light meters and the Polaroid camera would follow in the middle of the 20th century. In 1975 Steve Sasson, a scientist at Kodak, developed the first electronic camera. Building on inventions in electronics and computing, it weighed 8lbs, stored the images on a compact cassette, was equivalent to 0.01 megapixels.
It would be further innovations in image sensors, better storage and a continued series of other incremental innovations that led to the first portable, commercially available digital camera coming on sale in Japan in 1987. Despite inventing the digital camera, the Kodak company initially ignored digital photography because the image quality was poor compared to film and because they made their money from recurring sales of film. However, by 2003 digital cameras outsold film cameras and Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The surviving firms sold most of the technical patents to companies such as Apple and Samsung. That’s the problem with innovation, sometimes it’s difficult to see which of today’s silly ideas will be tomorrow’s successes.
Today we use cameras all the time, but that bit of your phone you just used to photograph your lunch is the product of millions of ‘what ifs’, tens of thousands of people, thousands of years and hundreds of fields of inquiry into physics, chemistry, mechanics, computing, art, mathematics and philosophy. The output of developments in photography and lenses are now far reaching, the Hubble telescope, X-Rays, even Facebook are all benefactors, each themselves having a huge impact on our world and leading to further developments in other industries. Innovation is about how we as people assemble the spare parts of our existing insights into new innovations, new ways of doing things and new ways of seeing the world.