LETTER.  ‘Straightening the record on Reade’

[This title was provided by the editors of the British Journal of Photography]

Letter to the editor published in British Journal of Photography,
3 July 1996, Vol. 143 No. 7083, p. 7


In BJP 19 June, G. C. Reade communicates a common, but outdated, version of the Rev J. B. Reade’s part in the early history of photography.  In several books and articles on the history of photography it has been said that Reade used photographic preparations of silver salts with nutgalls (or gallic acid) and fixation with hyposulphite in 1836 or 1837.  Confusion about Reade’s status as an early inventor of photography is compounded because the widely accepted perception of photography being brought into the world in 1839 in the guise of the photogenic drawing technique, by a lone effort made throughout the late 1830s by W. H. F. Talbot, is itself an unfortunate simplification which propagates misconceptions.  The light sensitivity of silver salts was extremely common knowledge prior to 1839, and, for example, the 1836 edition of the most popular textbook of Chemistry in England, W. T. Brande’s Manual of Chemistry, described how images could be obtained of pictures placed in contact with paper treated with light sensitive silver nitrate. Reade used Brande’s Manual (and so indeed did Talbot).  He was also in the mid–1830s particularly interested in the design of optical components of the microscope in relation to characteristics (widely studied by the scientific community at that period) of the different ‘parts’ of light : visible light, Calorific rays, and the so–called ‘chemical’ rays, the latter defined as having the property of darkening silver salts. It is thus entirely conceivable that in 1836 or 1837 Reade could have looked at the response of silver nitrate treated paper to images obtained with his solar microscope.  Yet even if he did this he would have been right in considering it too well known to be worthy of publication.  More serious consideration needs to be given to statements by historians that originated from reports of the case of Talbot v. Laroche in 1854 that prior to 1839 Reade had fixed such images with hyposulphites, for if true it would have been an outstanding achievement.  Such statements had some credence because Reade appeared to have mentioned the use of hyposulphite to fix photographs in a letter said to have been dated 9 March 1839. Sir John Herschel made this most important suggestion about hypo, on which the photographic process depends, at a meeting of the Royal Society on 14 March 1839.  Reade was a Fellow of the Royal Society and often attended their meetings at this period and a paper on another subject communicated by him was read at the same meeting of 14 March.  As historical research has found that the letter in which Reade wrote about hyposulphites was dated not 9 March but 9 April 1839, it is now clear that Reade’s use of Hyposulphite was due to Herschel’s paper (which was quickly published by 23 March).  The survival of two other autograph letters by Reade written early in 1839 adds more evidence that he did not carrying out experiments in photography before that year.

For detailed examination of these issues concerning Reade see the following articles by this correspondent: 
‘J. B. Reade, F.R.S., and the Early History of Photography’,
Annals of Science, March 1971, Vol. 27, pp. 13–83;
‘J. B. Reade and Dr. Hugh Diamond’ (Letter),
BJP, 21 July 1972, p. 611; 
‘J. B. Reade’s early photographic experiments – recent further evidence on the legend ’,
BJP, 28 July 1972, pp. 643–7
Latent developments from Gallic Acid, 1839 ’,
Journal of Photographic Science, January 1980, Vol. 28, pp. 36–42.

R. Derek Wood
Bromley (Kent)

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