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.

Image courtesy of: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

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