Daguerreian Society

The following text is from Samuel Adams Drake, "Our World's Great 
Benefactors. Short Biographies of the Men and Women most Eminent in 
Philanthropy, Patriotism, Art, Literature, Discovery, Science, 
Invention" (Augusta, ME: E. E. Knowles & Co., 1891) pp. 680-7.
   The text is accompanied by a full-page illustration of a portrait of 
Daguerre with surrounding ornamentation.  The illustration is available 
(temporarily) at:
- - - - -

                  L.  J.  M.  DAGUERRE.

                 [BORN 1789.  DIED 1851.]

AT the session of the French Academy of Sciences, held in January, 
1839, M. Arago announced the remarkable discovery made by their 
countryman, M. Louis Jacques Daguerre, by which the long-sought method 
of fixing the images of the camera obscura had at length been 
perfected.  M. Daguerre had explained in advance confidentially to M. 
Arago the processes by which this result had been secured; so that the 
able and learned speaker was able to give a full and lucid account of 
this most interesting, admirable, and valuable achievement in the 
interest of both science and art, -- for to these twin branches its 
benefits were at first believed most to accrue.  But even M. Arago's 
forecast, sound and discriminating as it was, fell far short of 
developing the ultimate value of Daguerre's discovery to mankind; for 
instead of its inuring exclusively to the benefit of science or art, or 
of either of them, it speedily passed into the possession of the whole 
civilized world, and became domesticated in every household to whose 
treasures of affection or memory it had contributed so priceless a 
gift.  Still, even within the limitations which were supposed at first 
to govern it, the discovery produced a startling impression upon the 
public.  Daguerre had gone no further at this time than to reproduce 
upon his plates such architectural objects as were familiar to the 
Parisians, and might therefore be easily recognized; but this feat, 
affording as it did the best test of the fidelity of Daguerre's 
processes, was quite enough to establish the fact that a great 
discovery had been made, and to fix a starting-point for the 
astonishing development that has succeeded Daguerre's original efforts.
   Let us trace the progress of the discovery a little, in order to 
show how far Daguerre may he entitled to the name that we have assigned 
to him of a benefactor of the race.
   It is about two centuries ago since a Neapolitan scientist by the 
name of Giovanni Battista Porta discovered the camera obscura, or dark 
chamber, in which the images projected by a sun-ray upon the dark 
background of the chamber were reproduced with the utmost fidelity.  
But this was considered as no more than a curious phenomenon, and as 
such, attracted much attention from learned and unlearned.  There the 
invention rested until Wedgwood, as we have stated in our sketch of 
him, attempted the transfer of objects, and also of paintings, 
sculptures, and engravings to his ware.  Davy also made some 
experiments with the same general view; but neither succeeded in 
obtaining the results he aimed at for want of knowledge of the proper 
chemical substances to hold the pictures he had obtained, which faded 
or turned black as soon as exposed to the light.  The matter was, 
however, too interesting to be dropped.  In 1814 a Frenchman named 
Niepce turned his attention to the same subject, pursuing it 
indefatigably until he had worked out his own ideas; and it is to him, 
more than to any other, Daguerre excepted, that the final and signal 
success of the great invention is due.  Niepce's first efforts were 
directed to the fixing of silhouettes by chemical substances.  For 
years he pursued his favorite idea until he had perfected a process by 
which he was able to do what Wedgwood and Davy had failed to 
accomplish; namely, to copy engravings by the aid of the camera.  Up to 
this point, where Niepce was joined by Daguerre as co-laborer in the 
purpose to work out the discovery to a practical solution, no one seems 
to have heard anything of Daguerre in connection with it, although M. 
Arago asserts that Daguerre had for several years been assiduously 
engaged upon the same thing as Niepce, each being ignorant of the 
other's purpose.
   Daguerre was born at Cormeilles in 1789.  From infancy he showed a 
predilection for designing.  He came to Paris, like so many other young 
men of talent, in search of the career that the great metropolis had 
opened to his ardent imagination.  His inclination for drawing, the 
proficiency he soon showed in that particular branch of art, procured 
him a situation as scene painter and decorator of the theatres of 
Paris; and in this profession he rapidly took a leading place.  
Daguerre's inventive genius soon asserted itself.  He introduced many 
pleasing illusions by means of his art, to the wonder and delight of 
the Parisians; but his greatest success as a painter came when he 
opened to the public his diorama, which was at that time a novelty in 
scenic representation.  It had an immense popularity.  The arrangement 
was a circular hall having a movable floor, which, by turning with the 
spectators upon it, transferred them without inconvenience before the 
successive series of pictures with marvellous realistic effect.  The 
diorama was, however, destroyed by fire.
   At this epoch, therefore, we find that Daguerre was an artist of 
merit in his particular line who had made a study of, and had 
introduced many novel optical effects into, scenic display in the 
theatre.  His native ingenuity and invention had been shown too in 
working out the various improvements introduced by him; but we are 
absolutely without knowledge respecting his earlier experiments with 
the camera obscura, or of the reasons which had induced him to set 
about the elucidation of its problems with all the energy of his 
nature.  It is certain, only, that he had been some time at work over 
them, when he heard of M. Niepce, whom he immediately sought out, and 
with whom he subsequently formed a partnership for perfecting the 
discovery upon which both were intent.  This instrument, which was 
signed in 1836, was duly recorded, and is in effect an admission by 
Niepce of Daguerre's claims at that particular stage of the discovery, 
since it is hardly to be supposed that Niepce would have admitted 
Daguerre to an equal share of the benefits of his own protracted 
experiments unless corresponding advantage to himself had been made 
clear to his mind.  We state this because it is asserted that while 
Niepce disclosed his processes to Daguerre, there is nothing to show 
what Daguerre offered him in return.  It was understood and agreed that 
the new discovery should hear the names of both the contracting 
parties; but in consequence of a condition imposed by M. Daguerre 
himself, the new process took the name of Daguerre only, --hence, 
Daguerreotype.  Niepce died in 1833, six years before the discovery was 
made public.  It aroused a veritable enthusiasm.  At the instance of 
the Academy the process was purchased by the State; and then, in a 
spirit most honorable to the nation, it was given to the public, --
Daguerre receiving an annuity of 6,000 francs, and Niepce fils, 4,000 
francs.  Daguerre continued to devote himself to the improvement of his 
processes.  In the meantime an Englishman named Talbot had nearly 
secured the result achieved by Daguerre, and now appeared as his 
competitor for the honor of the discovery.
   His claims, however, were not allowed by the French Academy, to 
which body Mr. Talbot had submitted them, although his process differed 
from that of Daguerre in that Talbot took his images on chemically 
prepared paper instead of metal.  In 1851, when M. Daguerre died, the 
art of photography was still in its infancy; but under the impetus of 
publicity, it has since made great progress.  Not only his own process, 
but that of Talbot, has been entirely superseded by the improvements of 
Mr. Scott Archer, of England, glass being now used to receive the image 
instead of metal or paper, thus securing almost indefinite duplication 
of a subject.  It should be stated, however, that Dr. J. W. Draper, of 
New York, was the first to obtain with enlarged lenses portraits by the 
process of Daguerre.
   From every point of view, the grand discovery of Daguerre is one of 
the most useful that has signalized the century we live in; and its 
possibilities seem all the greater when we consider its earlier 
achievements in the light of present adaptability to the multitude of 
purposes for which it may be employed.  If printing is the art 
preservative of all arts, photography merits a still higher place, 
since it preserves for us an exact counterpart of the object itself, 
while printing at most secures only a history or a description, more or 
less accurate according to the ability of the writer to convey the 
impression he may have received.  As a disseminator of the great works 
of art, photography has already proved a valuable means of art 
education to the masses.

Posted for your enjoyment.     Gary W. Ewer     

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