Scientific Achievements

Image: Photograph of James Watt’s copying machine.

Image from: Handsworth Historical Society via Digital Handsworth Project

Some of the Lunar Society members invented improved cameras and various devices for making and reproducing visual images. Erasmus Darwin invented a device to copy drawings or writing in which two quill pens were fastened together. James Watt’s copier used chemical means like modern blueprints. Tom owned one of these machines, which he carried on his travels. His cousin, Ralph Wedgwood later invented carbon paper to do the same job.

Nicholson’s Journal, a scientific magazine run by one of Josiah Wedgwood’s former employees, often carried accounts of inventions for picture-making and copying and was among the first to reprint Davy’s article. So Wedgwood’s interest is not unusual for its time. But it needs to be understood as related to his studies of light, visual perception and education during his short life.

Wedgwood made several attempts at a theory of visual perception, none of which was published in his life-time. They came out of his researches into how children should be educated. He studied infants to understand how they arrive at a sense of themselves and the world around them. He decided that it was through the constant repetition of identical visual experiences that children learned to recognize the world of familiar things.

Wedgwood thought of the eye as a camera and of the images formed by light on the retina, a light-sensitive screen at the back of the eye, to be like pictures.  So for Wedgwood, a method which could make permanent pictures by the action of light, like those on the child’s retina, for repeated viewing, might obviously seem desirable as a way to improve learning.

It is not clear when the different strands of his ideas and scientific interests began to be gathered into practical work on what we now call photography. It seems possible that these experiments were partly due to intense arguments about the mind and the perceptions of children between

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and Tom Wedgwood in the late 1790s.  The intervals in which Wedgwood’s illness allowed him to work, and references such as the mention of “silver pictures” in a letter from James Watt to Tom’s brother, suggest 1799 as a possible date. This is confirmed by a friend’s recollection in 1839 of the work having taken place forty years earlier.

It was not until 1802, that the strangely titled “Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass. Invented by T WEDGWOOD, ESQ”, was published by the Royal Institution. Another of his friends, Humphry Davy, was the author and it appears that he had repeated Tom’s experiments to check them. He makes it clear that Wedgwood’s original aim, which was unsuccessful, was to make pictures using the camera. He had more success with attempts to copy pictures by placing semi-transparent paintings, and possibly silhouettes, on surfaces sensitised to light. He also used solid objects in a similar fashion. But it was not possible to fix the images permanently. They steadily darkened on being exposed to the light.

The article also mentions that images made on white leather were the most successful, a fact that would prove important to later researchers. Although he would have thought of his initial efforts as a failure, Tom Wedgwood was aware of the importance of recording them, along with other promising ideas, for the benefit of others.

While it is important not to overestimate work which in the past has been underrated it now seems clear that his work not only anticipated the inventions of forty years later, but in some cases definitely influenced them. For example, the researches of The Rev. J B Reade in the early 1830s were certainly based on knowledge of Wedgwood’s work and developed the hint about success with leather. Reade realised it was something about the tanning of leather that helped and by tanning paper he secured improvements.

Reade’s work was known to William Henry Fox Talbot, rightly considered the most important of the fathers of photography for his greater understanding of the chemistry, and for his negative-positive process that made possible modern mass-produced photographs. There is, then, at least, an indirect link between the two. It is quite likely that some of Talbot’s important ideas, such as making photographic copies by contact printing, were suggested by Wedgwood’s work.

Tom Wedgwood, talking of his work on education, once said his aim was “to find some master-stroke which should anticipate a century or two on the lazy-paced progress of human improvement.”   His big idea, photography, would prove to be just that!

Early Influences

Image: Silhouette of Erasmus Darwin (right), playing chess with his son Erasmus (left). Erasmus Darwin contributed to the education of Tom Wedgwood. Portrait silhouettes were produced using an early camera. A reconstructed example is located in Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield (By kind permission of Jane Darwin).

Photograph: David Remes (2003).

Tom Wedgwood lived as a child at Etruria Hall in Staffordshire, near his father’s pottery. He became familiar with both science and the arts through his father and Erasmus Darwin, a close family friend. This is important because at that time making accurate pictures of the world was not just an artistic activity; it was linked to the development of modern science. Many artists used instruments, some very much like a modern camera, to assist them.  As a boy he grew up with paintings by their family friend, Joseph Wright of Derby, and he was taught by George Stubbs, both artists with scientific interests. Tom carried out chemical experiments as part of his studies and also learned to draw well.

As a young man he used his father’s contacts with leading members of the Lunar Society, an influential group of thinkers including scientists and manufacturers. They were leading figures in the Industrial Revolution, which was centred on the Midlands. He kept in touch with Darwin, the chemist Joseph Priestley and James Watt of steam engine fame. When only twenty-one, Tom had his first groundbreaking research published in the respected Transactions of the Royal Society. This established for the first time that there was a common temperature at which all substances begin to glow (or phosphoresce). His early interest in light may have been suggested by Wright’s paintings with dramatic lighting such as The Alchemist, (1771-95, Derby Museum and Art Gallery) which pictured the discovery of the chemical element phosphorus, the bearer of light!

Another Wright picture, usually known as The Corinthian Maid (1783-5, National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Paul Mellon Collection), was specially painted for Josiah. The painting, which would have been familiar to Tom, shows the daughter of a classical Greek potter making the very first picture by copying the outline of her lover’s shadow on the wall. Her father moulded the image in clay and fired it to preserve a picture of the world in a permanent form; just as a photograph does. The painting might have been somewhere at the back of Tom Wedgwood’s mind, since one of closest collaborators on the photographic work later described it as attempt to fix shadows.

This reminds us, too, of the popular craze at the turn of the century for portrait silhouettes, or cut-out profiles which were made by drawing round shadows. Rather like the Greek potter, Josiah Wedgwood was asked by a friend to make a pottery version of some profiles to commemorate his wife.  People also tried to invent machines to make and copy these images.

Tom Wedgwood’s Importance

Image: Engraving of Josiah Wedgwood. Josiah was the father of Tom Wedgwood.

Imagine a world without photographs, TV, films, videos, DVDs or mobile video-phones.  Think for a moment of what it would be like if we had only what could see with our own eyes or that we could figure out from descriptions in words, drawings, paintings or prints. It would be a much smaller, more uncertain and scarier place. Tom Wedgwood (1771-1805) was the first to think of a way of making and copying pictures chemically that would lead eventually to the mass of visual images, which make up so much of our sense of the world we live in today.

Josiah Wedgwood, was the famous potter from Stoke-on Trent, who made his craft into the modern ceramics industry. Josiah Wedgwood’s youngest son, Tom, was also the origin of a great industry, photography. His importance was recognized as early as 1839 the official “birth date” of photography. Even then, he was overshadowed and confused with his famous father. Illness prevented him from working and led him to abandon his practical experiments, but he made a circle of friends with leading figures in science and the arts. He provided the money that helped start the careers of the chemist Humphry Davy and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

What did he do? He tried to fix the images made in the camera obscura, an early version of the modern photographic camera. He also saw the importance of duplicating pictures. He used a process depending on the chemical action of light on silver salts. This was similar to the process still used today for conventional photographic development. He also made the first “photograms”; images made through the direct contact of objects with light sensitive surfaces. An account of his work written by Davy was published by the Royal Institution in London in 1802.  It was widely available and indirectly responsible for the advances towards photography made in England in the 1830s leading to the modern photographic industry.

Thomas Wedgwood: the Godfather of Photography

Image: The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, (Exhibited 1771), Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Oil on Canvas, Derby Museum & Art Gallery. This painting was a likely influence on Tom Wedgwood.


Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) was a son of Josiah Wedgwood, the Staffordshire potter and member of the Lunar Society. His upbringing and contacts with industrialists, inventors and artists provided him with an advanced scientific and cultural education. Like other members of the Wedgwood family he was interested in experimentation. Josiah Wedgwood used chemicals to create glazes and colours for his ceramic ware. Tom Wedgwood explored different ways of using chemicals to fix an image photographically. He was not successful in creating a permanent image, but his investigations contributed to the development of photography in the nineteenth century.