First photomicrography, micro-cinematography, electron micrography, astrophotography, astro-cinematography, and radar & radio astronomy



William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) was taking photographs through a microscope as early as 1837 [Frizot], and the above is an example of a photomicrograph taken using the earliest process he used, photogenic drawing. This is picture ref. 10453154 in the Science & Society Picture Library, where it's not dated; as reproduced in Burbridge it's dated as c. 1840, but in Keller c. 1839, and in Jeffrey 1839 (Keller also reproduces a Talbot photomicrograph of diatoms, given the same date). It's known that photomicrographs were among the photogenic drawings Talbot exhibited at the Royal Institution in London on 25 July 1839; Talbot himself reported that these had included "some images formed by the Solar Microscope, viz. a slice of wood very highly magnified, exhibiting the pores of two kinds, one set much smaller than the other, and more numerous. Another Microscopic sketch, exhibiting the reticulations on the wing of an insect."

Stereoscopic photomicrographs were being taken by 1866, at which date one (above), of the snail Helix costata (by Armand Varroquier), was published in Albert Moitessier's La photographie appliquée aux recherches micrographiques. [Wasielewski]


Micro-cinematography (cinemicrography)

Around 1890 Francis Martin Duncan (18731961) took serial photographs of microscopic organisms and animated them by mounting them in a Zoetrope. [McKernan]

In 1891 Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) employed his newly perfected chronophotographe to photograph infusoria through a microscope. [Tosi]



Electron micrography

first electron micrograph

This image of the wing surface of the house fly was the first published electron micrograph (Driest, E. and Mueller, H. O.: Z. Wiss. Mikroskopie 52, 53-57 [1935]). The micrograph was made by Heinz Otto Mueller, with the original 1933 microscope designed by its inventor Ernest Ruska (1906–1988).

The microscope, completed in November 1933, was in fact Ruska's second design, but there don't appear to be any surviving images taken by the first (which had been completed in August of the same year). [Ruska's Nobel lecture, 1986]

3D imagery using a scanning electron microscope was first achieved, by D.J. De Rosier and A. Klug in 1968, by means of combining projections from different angles of tilt using the Fourier transform, a mathematical technique. Initially this only worked with helically symmetrical structures, such as the tail of the T4 bacteriophage, on which it was first employed. [De Rosier & Klug, 3D Electron Microscopy]

On 25 April 2012 a Japanese research group announced that they had developed a scanning electron microscope (SEM) capable of showing a 3D image in real time, with a high-resolution naked-eye 3D monitor for the SEM. [Tech-On]




Unsurprisingly, the first subject for astrophotography was the moon. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) made an unsuccessful attempt at photographing the moon in 1839, but the long exposure time resulted in a blurred image. [, Hughes]

earliest-known astrophotograph

John William Draper (1811–1882) succeeded in capturing a daguerreotype image of the moon, probably in late 1839. Although this survives, it is badly flawed with photographic artefacts and other imperfections, and can't be regarded as successful. Successful or not, this is the earliest known astrophotograph, and as such is the one I've chosen for reproduction here.

He later made what is now regarded as the first successful daguerreotype of the moon (a 30-minute exposure), using a 3in lens and a 6in mirror. Draper reported his success to the New York Lyceum of Natural History on 23 March 1840. According to Stefan Hughes, Draper's first successful daguerreotype was destroyed in a fire at New York University in 1865, but a copy survives. [; Hughes, p132, where the copy of the later, successful, image is also reproduced]

[The first stereoscopic astrophotographs, of the Moon, were taken by Warren de la Rue (1815–1889) in 1858/9. The stereoscopic effect was achieved by taking left and right images at different librations, 15 months apart, so is really an artifice.]




The French astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen (1824–1907) developed what he called a 'photographic revolver' in 1873 (designed by himself, but constructed by the Redier technicians). On 8 December 1874 he and his colleagues, on an expedition to Nagasaki, used it to record images of the transit of Venus across the solar disc. Using a disc-shaped daguerreotype plate, Janssen's colleague, the Brazilian astronomer Francisco Antônio de Almeida, obtained 47 small photographs of the solar edge, taken at intervals of approximately a second. The photographic revolver, and what some thought was the plate concerned, are exhibited at the Museum of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers (CNAM) in Paris. However, Françoise Launay and Peter D. Hingley maintain that this is a practice plate, and that not one of the revolver plates exposed during the transit can now be traced. [Launay and Hingley, Tosi, Canales, , Mourão; according to Rossell there were 48 images on each of four discs exposed that day.]

Both Canales and include images of the CNAM disc, and an animation was made from it by Joseph Leclerc in 1950 (possibly that now viewable on YouTube). (The Origins of Scientific Cinematography DVD includes an animation of a Janssen disc of the 1874 transit recorded by British astronomers, and a Quicktime animation has been made from glass-plate negatives taken by David P. Todd and his team of the 1882 transit. An animation also appears here but, despite the filename, this is probably not Janssen's disc.)



Radar astronomy

Radar astronomy, which explores distant objects by means of reflected microwaves, was developed from 1946 onwards. However, it was for some years too blunt an instrument to enable actual imaging. The first radar image—described as a 'range-Doppler' image—was of the Moon, obtained by Gordon Pettengill on 7 January 1960, using techniques developed by his colleague at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, Paul Green. The top of the image (shown in range box 2) represents the point on the lunar surface closest to the radar. [Butrica]

first image from radar astronomy

Photo no 261209-1D, courtesy of MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Lexington, Massachusetts


Radio astronomy

The first detection of an astronomical radio source was made by Karl Jansky (1905–1950) in the early 1930s, and the first parabolic radio telescope made by Grote Reber (1911–2002) in 1937. As single radio telescopes can't achieve high resolution, a technique known as interferometry was developed in 1946 by Martin Ryle, Joseph Lade Pawsey, and Ruby Payne-Scott, using multiple telescopes.

Present-day radio-astronomy, and the now familiar high-resolution computerised images, are dependent on what is called very long base interferometry (VLBI), which combines observations from many telescopes, emulating a single telescope of a size comparable to the maximum separation of the constituent telescopes. Although first demonstrated (by Roger Jennison) in 1958, it only became widely used in 1974. So far I have not succeeded in locating early examples of VLBI imagery. The earliest images in the Bordeaux VLBI Image Database date from 1994.



Full references for printed works

Ben Burbridge, ed. (2015) Revelations. MACK, in association with Media Space, London, and the National Media Museum, Bradford

Michel Frizot, ed. (1994/1998) A New History of Photography. Köln: Könemann

Ian Jeffrey (1999) Revisions: an alternative history of photography. Bradford: National Museum of Photography, Film & Television

Corey Keller, ed. (2009) Brought to Light. Photography and the Invisible, 1840–1900. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Luke McKernan (2013) Charles Urban. Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897–1925

Deac Rossell (1998) Living Pictures. The Origins of the Movies. Albany: State University of New York Press

Virgilio Tosi (2005) Cinema before Cinema. The Origins of Scientific Cinematography, 2nd edn. London: British Universities Film and Video Council.


© 2010–2023 Benjamin S. Beck

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This page was last revised on 2018-05-28.