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William Fox Talbot

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William Henry Fox Talbot (11 February 1800 – 17 September 1877), was the inventor and pioneer of the negative / positive photographic process, the precursor to most photographic processes of the 19th and 20th centuries.

1800 William Henry Fox Talbot was born on 11 February, at Melbury, Dorset. He was the only child of Wiltshire-born army officer William Davenport Talbot (1764-1800), of Lacock Abbey. His mother was Elisabeth Theresa (1773-1846), eldest child of the second earl of Ilchester, Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways, (1747-1802),

When he was only five months old, William's father died, leaving is family in poverty and forcing his wife and small son to live in a succession of family homes.

1804 Lady Elisabeth re-married. Her second husband was Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Charles Feilding (1780-1837) who became a real father to the boy. He later had two half-sisters, Caroline Augusta Feilding (1808-1881; later Lady Mount Edgcumbe) and Henrietta Horatia Maria Feilding (1810–1851; later Horatia Gaisford).

Fox Talbot became close to both his sisters, who soon influenced him artistically. Family connections gave him access to the élite in science and politics, and Caroline's later position, as lady-in-waiting to the queen, strengthened his royal contacts.

Talbot was highly intelligent and became a brilliant student who was always eager to learn, but was painfully shy and reclusive by nature. His mother passed on her flair for foreign languages and this later manifested in his philological and translation work. Her love of foreign travel broadened his education and contacts, and a keen interest in botanical studies and gardening throughout her family inspired his lifelong involvement in botany.

1811 After being tutored at home and in Sussex, Talbot entered Harrow School.

1817 He entered Trinity College, Cambridge.

1819 He became a scholar.

1820 He won the Porson university prize in Greek verse.

1821 He became twelfth wrangler and won the second chancellor's classical medal before securing his BA.

1824 By chance, Talbot met John Herschel in Munich in 1824, by which time he had already published six mathematical papers. A friendship was struck as was a scientific collaboration crucial to Talbot's later success. This may have influenced Talbot's turn towards research into light and optical phenomena.

1825 He became M.A.

1826 Talbot was introduced to the Scottish natural philosopher, David Brewster, by Herschel; Brewster's and Talbot's researches on light frequently overlapped, Brewster began publishing Talbot's scientific articles in his journal, and the two men became close, lifelong friends.

Talbot was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

1832 On 20 December, Talbot married Constance Mundy (1811-1880) of Markeaton in Derbyshire. He was also elected to parliament as the reform candidate for Chippenham at almost the same time.

1833 In October, beside Lake Como, Italy, Talbot had his most famous intellectual breakthrough. Frustrated by his inability to sketch the beauty of the scenery, he thought "...how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper..."

Talbot had no facilities for experimenting while travelling and immediately resumed parliamentary duties on his return to England.

1834 At Lacock Abbey, some time in the spring, he began to turn his dream into reality. By coating ordinary writing paper with alternate washes of table salt and silver nitrate, he fixed a light-sensitive silver chloride in the paper-fibres. When placed in the sun beneath an opaque object (e.g. a leaf), the paper became dark and produced a photographic silhouette where it was not protected from light.

His paper could not be used in the camera at this stage, so he asked an artist friend to scratch a landscape design into glass coated with opaque varnish. He then made multiple copies on his photographic paper, using this as a negative. Talbot first stabilised his images against the further action of light by washing them with potassium iodide — a process now called fixing.

1835 Talbot strove to increase the sensitivity of his coatings enough to make camera negatives practical. He knew his negatives could be printed on sensitive paper, reversing the tones back to normal, and allowing the production of multiple prints from one negative. By the end of the year, although largely successful, the knowledge of his discovery remained a family secret until he had improved matters further to warrant publication.

1836 Because of his investigations of crystals, Talbot was invited to give the Bakerian lecture to the Royal Society.

1838 He received the society's royal medal for his work in mathematics. During November, he returned to photographic experiments and began work on a paper for presentation to the Royal Society.

1839 By the beginning of the year, he had published nearly 30 scientific papers and 2 books. Within the year, 2 more followed. In January, he received shocking news from Paris, that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had frozen the images of the camera obscura. With no knowledge of details, Talbot faced the possible loss of his discovery if Daguerre's method proved identical to his. It was, in fact, totally different, but the support given to Daguerre by his government, placed him firmly in the spotlight. Talbot received little support from the Royal Society, which even refused to publish his work.

1840 In September, Talbot discovered that an invisible effect in his silver paper was triggered by a very short exposure. Using a chemical developer he could build this latent image into a full-strength negative. Previously long exposure times became mere seconds.

1841 The new process was publicly announced in spring, and Talbot called it ‘calotype photogenic drawing’. It became known as the calotype, (or the ‘Talbotype’ among his friends). Urged by his mother and Brewster, he patented the process and in so doing, caused himself unending problems.

1844 In June, Talbot began selling his serial The Pencil of Nature, with original photographic print illustrations, and designed to demonstrate the potential of photographic publication.

1845, he issued Sun Pictures in Scotland, illustrated with twenty-three original photographic prints, sold by subscription.

1846 Another 6000 original prints were supplied to the Art-Union, for inclusion in its 1846 volume. This proved disastrous as the problems of mass production were soon highlighted. Variables affected the quality of the print, so the stability of silver-based photographs proved impossible and many of the plates began to fade. It was a bad year for Talbot: his mother died, leaving him bereft of a close friend and ally, as well as an inspiration; and The Pencil of Nature was discontinued.

Talbot held many patents and apart from 6 concerned with photography, there were 2 for metallurgy and 6 for motive power. Those for photography began to worry him greatly and the rest brought him no financial benefit. He felt let down - the French had supported Daguerre so strongly, whereas his own government had all but ignored him.

Things were moving fast in the photographic field and many of Talbots ideas were challenged.

1852 He was persuaded to relinquish all coverage except for commercial portrait production, but still this proved insufficient: he was savagely attacked in print, even to the point that he had appropriated others' work.

1854 Tested in court in December, and in spite of affidavits by Sir John Herschel and Sir David Brewster, Talbot's patent was disallowed. The court acknowledged him as the true inventor of photography but ruled that his patent did not cover newer processes. Talbot's reputation was irreparably damaged.

By 1858, undeterred, he had evolved a much improved process which he called ‘photoglyphic engraving’ and a second patent was granted. These were direct ancestors of the modern photogravure process, although they did not succeed commercially within his lifetime.

1862 The International Exhibition in London awarded him a prize medal for photoglyphic engraving.

1863 Edinburgh University celebrated this intellectual diversity by awarding Talbot an honorary doctor of laws degree ‘because of his pre-eminence in literature and science, and the benefits his discoveries have conferred upon society’.

1877 After many years of heart disease he died in his study at Lacock Abbey on 17 September, and was buried at Lacock.

Talbot's name is preserved in various scientific fields: in mathematics, Talbot's curve; in physics, Talbot's law and the Talbot (a unit of luminous energy); in botany, two species are named after him; in astronomy, a crater of the moon is named after him.

In his lifetime, Talbot had published seven books and nearly sixty scientific and mathematical articles.

He left extensive archives of photographs, correspondence, manuscripts, and research notes, which his son, Charles Henry, inherited along with Lacock Abbey.

On his death, he gave the abbey and its contents to his niece, Matilda Gilchrist-Clark (1871–1958), the daughter of Talbot's third daughter, Matilda Caroline. The niece changed her surname to Talbot and actively managed the abbey and the village.

In the 1930s, she made extensive efforts to ensure that her grandfather's work (especially that in photography) would be preserved, and generously distributed examples worldwide.

1944 she presented Lacock Abbey to the National Trust.

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