Niepce's Camera: Yesterday's Eyes and Visions Darkly Fading

This grainy image captures a turning point in human history.
Taken in 1826, this is considered to be one of the earliest photographs ever taken. Titled View From the Window at Les Gras, the image allows us to look out over rooftops and fields beyond as they appeared the better part of 200 years ago.

A shutter -- open for 8 hours -- allowed the image to be focused on a butimen-covered pewter plate which was then washed with a combination of oil of lavender and white petroleum.

Nicephore Niepce
The photographer was Nicephore Niepce, a pioneer-inventor. This photograph -- Niepce called it a heliograph -- was taken at his Les Gras estate in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France.

And Niepce wasn't the only pioneer photographer to spend time there. Daguerre, inventor of Daguerreotype photography, collaborated with Niepce a number of times at the estate.

In 2002, Les Gras estate was converted into a museum in honor of Niepce's work there.
The window -- through which the historic photograph was taken -- was removed during a renovation sometime after 1836 and its actual location was for a long time a mystery.

But after studying blueprints, historians have created a computerized artist's conception of what Niepce actually saw that fateful day.


But View From the Window at Les Gras wasn't the first image Niepce captured. The year before he replicated a 17th century Flemish engraving, depicting a man leading a horse.

flemish engraving

Why take a picture of an engraving?
Nineteenth century publishers needed an efficient way to reproduce works of art. Something called a camera obscura -- much like today's overhead projector -- was used to project the image of a painting or engraving onto a blank sheet of tracing paper where it could be replicated by hand.

Niepce couldn't draw very well and sought a way to capture the projected image permanently.

Photography started out as the search for a good Xerox machine. All the rest was serendipity.

Renaissance Man
But Niepce didn't spend all his time in the dark room.


In 1818 he invented the velocipede, a precursor to today's bicycle. And if that wasn't enough, he also built the world's first internal combustion engine, with fuel injection, no less. He even hypothesized mounting his engine to the velocipede.

If he'd followed up on that, he would have invented the world's first motorcycle, as well. Vroom Vroom!

Apocalypzia Trivia: On the far side of the Moon, in the high latitudes, there is a crater named after Niepce, in honor of his many contributions to science.