William Fox Talbot MP: the inventor of photography

The inventor of photography William Fox Talbot died one hundred and thirty-five years ago today. A man of many talents, Talbot made distinguished contributions to maths, physics, botany, archaeology, and astronomy. What is less well known is that Talbot was also an MP.

Talbot came from a Wiltshire family and was educated at Cambridge, where he won numerous academic prizes. By 1832, when he was elected for Chippenham, near his family’s home, he was a fellow of the Royal Society and many other scientific institutions. In politics, Talbot was a Whig and supported the government of Earl Grey, which included his uncle Lord Lansdowne. Although he did not speak in debate, Talbot took his parliamentary duties seriously. His mathematical talents led him to offer private advice to Lansdowne about the government’s budget. Talbot attended debates that often lasted until 3am and he complained of the ‘great sacrifice’ of his time prevented him pursuing his scientific interests, which included photography.

Talbot had first thought of the idea while on holiday in Italy in 1833 during the parliamentary recess. At that time a device called a camera obscura was used by artists to project an image into a wooden box. Talbot believed that this image could be made permanent and abandoned his political career in 1835 to focus on his new project. In any case, he told his constituents, ‘in these days of party conflict, a seat in Parliament has become less an object of my ambitions than in more tranquil, and, may I add, more reasonable times’.

Talbot followed up his initial insight with a series of brilliant experiments, including the use of silver salts to create a latent image on paper, making multiple copies from a negative, ‘fixing’ the image with potassium iodide, and deriving positives from negatives. Despite his achievements, the shy Talbot only made public his experiments at the Royal Society in January 1839 after hearing rumours that the Frenchman Daguerre had developed a similar process. Further experiments resulted in much shorter exposure times and the ‘calotype’ in 1840. He later developed photographic engraving and spent much of his later life translating Assyrian texts.

Further reading

G. Buckland, Fox Talbot and the invention of photography (1980).

Larry J. Schaaf, The photographic art of William Henry Fox Talbot (2000).

The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot project, http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/project/project.html.

Lacock Abbey and Fox Talbot Museum, National Trust, http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock/

For details on how to access the History of Parliament’s full biography of Fox Talbot, see here.

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2 Responses to William Fox Talbot MP: the inventor of photography

  1. Ela says:

    Great resource! we cover the most famous victorian inventions on our site: http://www.inventions-handbook.com/victorian-inventions.html

  2. Pingback: MP of the Month: Edward King Tenison | The Victorian Commons

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