Strings attached: The real story of the daguerreotype, a gift from France.

Strings Attached.

The gift of the french to the world was the Daguerreotype. While a flattering statement for the French, one must not forget that, like lunch, nothing comes free. It’s striking to think that such a popular commercially viable and patentable process such as the Daguerreotype would not find success first in the private sector before being released to the public. Why?

This writing will examine what factors went into this bold and seemingly obvious decision, by whom, and to what ends. What became of the Daguerreotype? What were the consequences of the patent release? Most importantly, why would one of the largest technical achievements in the history of modern times be simply given away? As we will find, the answer is not so simple that we can sequester it into the category as purely altruistic.

 Louis Daguerre, Library of Congress.

Louis Daguerre, Library of Congress.

Daguerre, who by fate would develope the silver-on-mirror technique for fixing images in the same year as Talbot’s Calotype, announced his accomplishment in 1839. The Daguerreotype was not just seen as technically superior at the time, as the images were of higher clarity [1] and had less a propensity to fade as did the Calotype; but they also were substantially more popular in part due to the lack of aggressive patenting.

The technical superiority of the Daguerreotype over the Calotype should not be understated. In fact, a reviewer at the International Photography Exhibit of 1863 remarked that many images were “fading before the eyes of the nations assembled.” [2] Clarity in the Daguerreotype was more pronounced, no doubt a result of printing on glass rather than porous paper, as the Calotype did.

To make matters worse for the Calotype, it’s inventor William F. Talbot was notoriously known for having a poor business sense. Talbot’s publication, the Pencil of Nature, had dwindling sales before being abandoned - not finished - before the 7th edition was released. [3] Still, Despite all of these disadvantages the Calotype still had the important advantage of mass production; a quality that was not merely lacking but non existent in the Daguerreotype.

The Daguerreotype was embraced by nearly every corner of the world. Studios soon began popping up in America [4] and by the late 1850’s, Daguerreotypes represented the majority of all images produced photographic images. Over 30 million were made made in the United States alone. [5]

 Daguerreotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress

Daguerreotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress

 Calotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress.

Calotype, Father with his Son, Library of Congress.

One wonders if Daguerre could have imagined the revolutionary nature of his image fixing process. Even if only a fraction of the 30 millions daguerreotypes were made, a decrease due to a licensing fee, he may have been vastly more wealthy than he ended up being. Here we arrived at our first startling question: if the Daguerreotype was seen as superior to its rival Calotype, with the one noted exception, and it’s rival creator perhaps intrinsically a poor business man, why would Daguerre not patent his process?

To answer this, we must first note that the Daguerreotype was a gift to the world with one substantial string attached: England would not have access to this gift, adding to the longstanding contention both countries already shared. Daguerre filed a patent for his process in the United Kingdom through an intermediary, Miles Berry, on August 14th, 1839 [6].

As it happened, Louis Daguerre initially did try to sell his process in france for a sum of 200,000 Francs [7], worth today about 5.6 Million Francs. This attempt was unsuccessful. At about the same time, Daguerre began relationship with a member of the French Academy of Science, who ultimately persuaded Daguerre and the Monarchy to release the patent.

 Lunar animals and other objects Discovered by Sir John Herschel, Library of Congress.

Lunar animals and other objects Discovered by Sir John Herschel, Library of Congress.

Meanwhile, Daguerre was was in talks with Sir John Herschel of the British Royal Society. Hershel had been supervising a voyage to the antarctic, where the Daguerreotype would prove more favorable than the older Camera Obscura for scientific inquiry. Both men were hopeful that the British government would purchase the patent from Daguerre for British common use. Hershel even request that Daguerre send him a sealed envelope that be opened on the voyage itself, quite confident that the government would purchase the rights for only 3,000 Pounds, about $91,460 today. [8]

The French Monarchy offered Daguerre a pension of 6,000 francs per year, about $77,400 [9] to buyout the Patent. It was on August 19th, 1839 that King Louis Philippe released the patent [10] to the world. Curiously, the British Crown was unwilling to pay for the equivalent of just over a year of Daguerre’s pension to retain the same level of photographic freedoms for it’s citizens that France was willing to pay a lifetime for.

It may have been that Daguerre and the Monarchy could see far enough ahead to realize that enforcing the patent would be futile (a topic we will soon revisit) and that sooner or later, a better process would take it’s place. This buyout would also help to eliminate patent monopolization [11] - a practice that still occurs today. In the colloquial books of history, France would also hold the honor of being the country to release the process to the world - a political move they were very much privy to [12].

While the British Crown had little interest in buying out the patent, the citizens themselves did. Ultimately the photographer Richard Beard purchased the sole rights for the Daguerreotype from Miles Berry. His intention was to not only create Daguerreotypes himself, but also license the rights to other photographers in the United Kingdom and its colonies.

Beard fell into great success with this licensing [13] but soon encountered many of the problems the French must have foreseen: licensing the patent rights can be difficult to enforce. Within a few years Beard had already filed six lawsuits with photographers who had been using the Daguerre processing without paying licensing fees - or related disputes. Beard V Egerton set the foundation for alien Patent law UK, still referred to today.

Ultimately the costs of the lawsuits overwhelmed Beard’s resources and by 1950 he was bankrupt. This timing couldn’t be worse for Beard, as Frederick Scott Archer developed his collodion-process photography using glass plates. This methods was far less toxic for the photographer, far cheaper, faster, and could be reproduced. Like Daguerre, Archer did not patent his process [14].

 Wet-collodion process, General Robert E. Lee and Sons, Library of Congress.

Wet-collodion process, General Robert E. Lee and Sons, Library of Congress.

 

Talbot sued Archer, allowing Beard another five years to license his practice. He continued to sell his photographs until 1857 when he handed his business to his son and returned to his previous career as a coal merchant. [15] By 1859 the patent could be renewed no longer, de jure.

After researching this topic, I’ve uncovered an interconnected web of lawsuits and financial gains that are oversimplified in to the short phrase “a gift to the world.” Surprising, unlike Archer, Beard, and Talbot - who saw little financial rewards for their photographic patents and licensing, it was who Daguerre made off with a substantial yearly pension, as well as licensing fees from his English patent.

Works Cited

[1] “Daguerre And Talbot.” Dawn's Early Light, Cornell University Library, 2011, rmc.library.cornell.edu/DawnsEarlyLight/exhibition/daguerretalbot/.

[2] Daniel, Author: Malcolm. “William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm.

[3] “William Henry Fox Talbot | The Pencil of Nature | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267022.

[4] Photographs, Author: Department of. “The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–60 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/adag/hd_adag.htm.

[5] Barger, M. Susan, and William Blaine White. The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

[6] Mcintosh, Alexander. A General Index to the Repertory of Patent Inventions, and Other Discoveries and Improvements in Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, from 1815 to 1845, Inclusive. 1846.

[7] Birchler, Urs W., and Monika Bütler. Information Economics. Routledge, 2010.

[8] Wood, R. Derek. “British Government Grant To The Royal Society.” History of Photography, vol. 4, Jan. 1980, pp. 1–16., doi:10.1126/science.84.2190.546.

[9] Bottomley, Sean. The British Patent System and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1852: from Privilege to Property. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[10] Mcintosh, Alexander. A General Index to the Repertory of Patent Inventions, and Other Discoveries and Improvements in Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, from 1815 to 1845, Inclusive. 1846.

[11] Kremer, Michael R. “Patent Buyouts: A Mechanism for Encouraging Innovation.”Https://Dash.harvard.edu/Bitstream/Handle/1/3693705/Kremer_PatentBuyouts.Pdf?Se, Harvard University, 4 Aug. 2017, dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3693705/Kremer_PatentBuyouts.pdf?se.

[12] Lesk, Michael. “Digital Rights.” Http://Citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/Viewdoc/Summary?Doi=10.1.1.693.9735, Penn State University, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.693.9735.

[13] “Richard Beard (English, 1801 - 1885) (Getty Museum).” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles, The Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/2029/richard-beard-english-1801-1885/

[14] Lesk, Michael. “Digital Rights.” Http://Citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/Viewdoc/Summary?Doi=10.1.1.693.9735, Penn State University, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.693.9735.

[15] “Richard Beard (English, 1801 - 1885) (Getty Museum).” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles, The Getty, www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/2029/richard-beard-english-1801-1885/.