Photograph of lace, made by William Henry Fox Talbot FRS (circa 1839)
In January 1839, the mathematician William Fox Talbot FRS announced his invention of 'photogenic drawing' at a Royal Society meeting. People were amazed by the finely detailed pictures he produced of everyday items like lace and flowers. The Victorian craze for photography had begun.
From the beginning, photography was used by scientists to record the world in a new way. Plants, animals and even facial expressions could be captured and studied. Now it is difficult to imagine a world without photographic images.
Items on display, from the Royal Society's Library and Archives
1. Original manuscript of Fox Talbot's article 'Some account of photogenic drawing or, the process of which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves, without the aid of the artist's pencil', read to the Royal Society on 31 January 1839. This was the first description of the photographic process Talbot had been working on since 1835. (Read the whole text here.)
2. Portrait of Charles Darwin FRS by Julia Margaret Cameron (1868). Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the most accomplished photographers of the Victorian period. At the bottom of the portrait Darwin has written 'I like this photograph very much better than any other which has been taken of me'.
3. Illustration from Anna Atkins's book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-1853). Anna Atkins, an English botanist, was the first to produce a book illustrated exclusively with photographic images, in this case using the cyanotype process invented by John Herschel FRS.
4. Stereoscopic photographs of Teneriffe by Charles Piazzi Smyth FRS (1856). Piazzi Smyth travelled to Teneriffe to make astronomical observations, but was also interested in the local terrain.
5. The aquatic larva of Tipula crystallina, photomicrographs by Richard Leach Maddox (1867). These were sent to the Royal Society to accompany his paper on the same subject, along with other hand-drawn illustrations.
6. Photograph of the moon seen through a telescope by John Phillips (1853). Phillips sent the image to Sir Edward Sabine FRS, and suggested that astronomers could record observations with both drawings and photographs.
7. Sir Henry James FRS's photographs of John Bailey, survivor of the wreck of the RMS Rhone in 1867 (he had been the ship's cabin boy). The photographs were used for cartes-de-visite (small photographs mounted on cardboard), which were collected and swapped by Victorian enthusiasts.
8.Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: photographs, stereoscopic cards and printed report by Robert Mallet FRS (published 1862). Mallet, an engineer, recorded the effects of a massive earthquake on the countryside around Na ples. The Royal Society funded his research and paid for the photographs, which were turned into lithographs to illustrate the printed report.
9. Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1873; first published 1872). Darwin used actors to capture some of the facial expressions he discusses in his book; other photographs were completely natural.