From Camera Obscura To Camera Futura - How Patents Shaped Two Centuries of Photographic Innovation and Competition

From Camera Obscura To Camera Futura - How Patents Shaped Two Centuries of Photographic Innovation and Competition

Elliot Brown, Ben Hattenbach, and Ian Washburn

The development of photographic technology has been one of the defining achievements of the last several centuries. About a thousand years ago, the state of the art approach to recording imagery involved what was called a ”camera obscura.” This device was a large box or even a full room with a hole in one side, which was used to project an upside-down image of its surroundings on a screen, enabling one to trace the image onto paper. Less than two hundred years ago, the cutting-edge technology for imaging was the daguerreotype, an expensive and unwieldy process through which a delicate image could be etched onto silver-coated copper plates that had been sensitized in iodine vapor. Today, in contrast, the Internet provides ready access to gigapixel imagery captured by space telescopes of galaxies billions of light years away. Even run of-the-mill consumer equipment offers image-stabilized autofocus lenses and image sensors whose tens of millions of pixels can capture details in near darkness.

The technical innovations underlying these advances were spread across numerous countries. They involved countless individual inventors. They spanned vast periods of time. And they relied upon a broad diversity of engineering approaches. But there has been a common factor that has often played a central role in these events: patents. Coincidentally or otherwise, photography’s technological progress has largely taken place in nations with well developed patent laws.

This unprecedented progress occurred both because of, and in spite of, the patent systems that rewarded innovators with limited monopolies in exchange for making and publicly disclosing inventions. We explore some of these events in greater detail below, addressing several historical junctures in the interplay between photography, technology, and the patent laws. We will conclude by examining how modern photographic innovation draws more than ever before from advances in complementary fields, such as semiconductors, computers and software, each of which are filled with patent landmines of their own, further elevating the importance of patents to practitioners in the photographic realm.

The prehistory of photography can be traced back over a thousand years. The Persian physicist Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) provided the first clear description of a ”camera obscura” around 1000 AD, when he hung lanterns outside a darkened room with only a small opening for light and ”observed that inverted images of light from the lanterns formed on the wall opposite the small opening.” Artists around the world would come to trace the camera obscura images as a means of creating more realistic art.

However, the image formed inside of a camera obscura—typically called the ”camera image”—was only temporary. The key to photography was finding a way to ”fix” the camera image. The fantasy of fixing a camera image dated back at least to French novelist Tiphaigne de la Roche, who wrote in 1760:

You know, that rays of light reflected from different bodies form
pictures, paint the image reflected on all polished surfaces, for example,
on the retina of the eye, on water, and on glass. The spirits
have sought to fix these fleeting images; they have made a subtle
matter by means of which a picture is formed in the twinkling of
an eye. They coat a piece of canvas with this matter, and place it in
front of the object to be taken. The first effect of this cloth is similar
to that of a mirror, but by means of its viscous nature the prepared
canvas, as is not the case with the mirror, retains a facsimile of the
image. . . . The canvas is then removed and deposited in a dark place.
An hour later the impression is dry, and you have a picture the more
precious in that no art can imitate its truthfulness.

This yearning to fix the camera image grew stronger in the very late eighteenth century. For example, Thomas Wedgwood grew up the son of a great potter, Josiah Wedgwood, and as a result was very familiar with uses of the camera obscura in pottery decoration. Wedgwood and a number of fellow science enthusiasts in Britain began investigating the possibility of light-sensitive materials as a means of fixing a camera image. In one important line of investigation,

Wedgwood and others experimented with a process of applying silver nitrate to paper, placing objects on the paper, and then exposing the paper and object to light, creating a white ”shadow image” of the object on the otherwise blackened paper. However, the camera image had not been permanently ”fixed” in these experiments unless the papers were kept in total darkness, because Wedgwood had no way of desensitizing the paper to light after his desired exposure was complete; over time, the entire paper would blacken. Nonetheless, the hunt was on for a fixed image—for what we today would likely call a photograph.

Wedgwood began these experiments to fix the camera image with light alone in the 1790s. That same decade, the first American patent statute was promulgated as the Patent Act of 1790. Photography and patent law have evolved together for more than two centuries, both influencing each other repeatedly. This article will explore how the two developed in tandem.

98 J. Pat. & Trademark Off. Soc’y 406 (2016)


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