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Firsts in the recording of sight and sound

These 'Firsts' pages are built so as to reflect two different aspects of the subject, as follows:

The technology

The human subject

General introduction

This series of pages was created in response to my own frustration at not being able to find this material in one place on the Internet, not to mention the wealth of misinformation available.

With almost all entries in Firsts, we have to be clear on the meaning of 'first', and whether it has any value. In all cases there will be previous technological developments that make it possible for something new to be discovered or invented. So in this sense any 'first' will be no more than a milestone along the way. But even as such I would argue that a more appropriate trope would be the signpost, as the 'first' represents a significant new path and points the way to destinations yet to be discovered: a point of divergence, or in science fictional terms a 'Jonbar hinge'.

There will, occasionally, be an indisputable moment at which something is created for the very first time: an exemplar might be the invention of immediately-reproducible sound recording, at the Edison laboratory. But more often than not, the process of invention requires repeated trial and error in experimentation, a lot of false starts, a developmental stage from unsuccessful outcomes through acceptable but imperfect results to the fully finished product. Even this, of course, will then be subject to further development. Holography provides a very clear example in which inventors have categorically denied the existence of a 'first'.

So usually, if a first, in the sense of the first fully finished product, is known of, it will be included in these web pages. Additionally, if earlier examples of an imperfect product are known, they will be included, essentially to acknowledge the pre-existence of the embryonic artefact. A case in point would be Draper's earliest photograph of the moon, in which the photographic subject is barely identifiable.

In practice, even when the true 'first' is known, the actual artefact may no longer survive. Where this is the case, I also include the earliest-known surviving example of the technology in question. This will be explicitly acknowledged as such (tacitly admitting that in this instance 'first' is no more than shorthand for a more wordy explanation).

As to value, the identification of firsts is part of the construction of the history of the technology. Any curiosity-value over and beyond that is a bonus.

This website has a separate series of pages on the representation of human beings in different reproductive technologies. This has a different motivation, which I describe elsewhere.


Generally, in these pages, I try not to be too fixated on the specific technology that gives rise to particular reproduced artefacts. In the case of photography, however, the received wisdom clearly accepts two principal (pre-digital) photographic technologies: the respective processes of Daguerre and Talbot, with others such as Bayard's that represented false starts and received no further development. For the principals I give firsts of each approach.

Daguerre's own process was of course preceded by Niépce's heliographic process, which is also included. While it might be argued that heliographs are lensless, so too are contact prints, which are indisputably photographs, and lensless images have been readily accepted into the photographic canon, witness Talbot's photogenic drawings, Atkins's cyanotypes, and Man Ray's rayographs, collectively all designated 'photograms'.

In photography, a key issue has to be the issue of transience or permanence. While Tom Wedgwood successfully produced photographic images, these were transient (over contested timescales), but none have survived. Should Wedgwood be included? Undoubtedly, as an important first stage in the development of photography, even though the images were unstable and none have survived from Wedgwood's experimentation. Wedgwood's own images survived long enough to have been viewed by others, and modern 'Wedgwood-o-types' are known to have retained visible images for decades (see Schaaf on Terry King's images).

Colour photography

Received wisdom, and the ubiquitous testimony of numerous websites, has it that the earliest colour photograph was James Clerk Maxwell's 'Tartan Ribbon'. But, as mentioned on the relevant page, the colour image appears only to have existed as an optical projection, and was not actually printed until the 1930s. It may be argued, however, that the projected image is fully as photographic as an image only viewable through an associated viewing device, as with stereographs or Ives Kromograms.

Even if 'Tartan Ribbon' is accepted, this does not give due credit to earlier examples of more-or-less successful colour photography, such as Bequerel's visible spectrums, or even Hill's Hillograms, in which inherent colour is still—just about—visible.

3D photography

On this website I use '3D' as a kind of shorthand, but am well aware that there are multiple ways of achieving what Jens Schröter calls the 'transplane image'. In particular, it's worth emphasising that '3d' means more than 'stereoscopy', and that 'stereoscopy' is not restricted to 'binocular stereoscopy', although that was its earliest manifestation.

The early history of 3D photography seems surprisingly sketchy, and there seems to be a real opportunity for some serious research, for anyone so minded.

The questions still needing an answer are:


  • What happened to Cullen's stereographic portrait(s) of Charles Babbage, which are presumed to have been lost?


  • Given that the Playfair 'stereo' portrait is not actually successfully stereoscopic, what and when was the first photograph taken simultaneously with two lenses?


  • What is the first and/or earliest surviving stereoscopic daguerreotype taken by Duboscq?

  • 3D colour photography

    A much desired project, from my point of view, would be the digitisation and colour-reconstruction of such of Ives's Kromograms as are held at the Smithsonian, and their online publication.


    Sound recording

    Here, more than anywhere, is a prime example of the disjunction between recording and reproduction. For most of the last 150 years it was a commonplace that Edison invented the phonograph, and it's still the case, of course, that it was the Edison lab was the first to achieve recording and playback. But we now know that recording (alone) was achieved by Scott de Martinville, playback of the same recordings finally being achieved only in the present century.

    Stereo sound

    Here we enter dangerous waters, with extremely knowledgeable enthusiasts ready and willing to champion their corner. In popular parlance, stereo usually just implies recordings of two microphone channels and reproduction through two speaker channels, left and right. Really, though, as with photography, the 'stereo' prefix refers to depth or solidity, without prescribing how that depth is manifested.

    But the definition needs to be broken down, broadly as follows: simple (2.0 stereo); binaural; quad/multi-channel surround sound/ambisonics; wave field synthesis.


    Finally: what is wrong with human, rather than technological recording, i.e. drawing, painting, sculpture?

    I suppose the problem is the time taken over the recording, which means that the representation ends up as being a more or less realistic simulation of the subject as seen over the period of the recording. While this can have the effect of capturing a more rounded view (perhaps especially with portraiture), it has the drawback (from the point of view of aspiring to verisimilitude) of introducing too much of the character of the artist.

    Nevertheless, some forms seem sufficiently objective to be accepted here. These might include the physiognotrace, Marey's seagull zoetrope, and Willème's photosculpture.



    If you find factual errors, or know of useful information that would improve these pages, I really want to hear from you.


    © 2009–2024 Benjamin S. Beck

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    These pages were last revised on 2024-02-03.