WAVEFRONT Issue Spring 1987
SOME LESSONS FROM HISTORY
ED WESLY OFFERS A CHRONOLOGY OF
PHOTOGRAPHIC PATENT CONFLICTS AS
A KIND OF PARALLEL TO THE CURRENT
PROBLEMS IN HOLOGRAPHY. WHILE
ONE CANNOT DRAW A ONE-TO-ONE
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PHOTO
GRAPHIC HISTORY AND HOLOGRAPHY,
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE TWO (IN TERMS OF THEIR INFANCY AND
GROWING PAINS) ARE UNMISTAKABLE. PERHAPS HISTORY HAS SOME LESSONS
TO OFFER FOR THOSE CURRENTLY EMBROILED IN A CONFLICT TO CONTROL THE
FUTURE OF HOLOGRAPHY.
Only in post-revolution France could an invention be given "free to
all the world" and its inventor rewarded with a lifelong pension from
That invention was the Daguerreotype process, the world's first
truly practical photographic method, invented by Louis Jacques Mande
Daguerre in the mid- 1830s.
Apparently, the French did not consider England part of the planet
as the process was patented there just days before the official French
announcement. Licenses were required to practise the art of
daguerreotyping and were enforced by Miles Berry, agent for Daguerre.
Photo-historians Helmut and Allison Gernsheim speculate that the
French government let Daguerre patent his invention in England as balm
for wounded national pride, since a subject of the Crown claimed to have
preceded Daguerre in using the "Pencil of Nature". If the English were
to use the superior French process, they would have to pay for it.
In 1841, Miles Berry sold the patents to Richard Beard, a coal
merchant turned daguerreotypist licensee, for 150 pounds annually. A
trifling 800 pounds for the daguerreotype monopoly netted him 25 to 35
thousand pounds in 1842! The sole exception to his jurisdiction was the
rooftop studios of a Frenchman, Antoine Claudet, who bought a license
directly from Daguerre before the Berry patent was issued.
Many people challenged Beard's patents. A 5 1/2- year lawsuit
resulted in Beard's bankruptcy in 1850, three years before the patents
expired. Although his patents were upheld, no damages were awarded and
that, coupled with the high legal costs, proved his ruination.
The English had a native son who also invented his own process
of photography, one William Henry Fox Talbot. In his process, a negative
image was formed by exposure in the camera. It had to be contact printed
onto another piece of sensitized paper to re- reverse tones. There was a
definite advantage to this last fact, since many copies could be produced from a master
negative. But the texture of the paper base printed through, causing a loss in sharpness.
Because the image was printed out directly in the camera, Talbot's
"photogenic drawing" needed more exposure than Daguerre's. Once Talbot
added a development step after exposure to increase sensitivity (and
rechristened his process the Calotype, herein referred to as the
Talbotype) he began to get nutty about patents too.
At first, everyone had to have a license. In August, 1852, Talbot
relaxed his stranglehold, allowing amateurs and landscape artists to
practise freely, while he pursued the lucrative portrait market.
But since most portraitists were practising a technically superior
(although patented) French process, Talbot actually hindered the
adoption of his own invention with his rigorous licensing.
Talbotypes and Daguerreotypes were almost immediately abandoned
when the wetplate, or collodion process, was introduced. It was more
sensitive, less expensive, and its variants produced a positive in one
step directly or could be replicated through positive-negative printing.
It was this last point that threw Talbot out of control. Since
he was the father of the negative-positive scheme, he felt the collodion
process infringed on his turf. After a fiery, 10-year court battle, with
lawyers from both sides providing as much misleading information as they
could muster, a decision was reached, but not in Talbot's favor.
Photographers were free to practise the wet collodion process. Or were
they? In America, James Cutting patented a variation of the wetplate
process called the "ambrotype". His patent also covered the inclusion of
silver bromide in the collodion emulsion, essential to speed up the
material for portraiture.
This "bromide patent" meant anyone practising wetplate photography
was infringing on his patent, and a good many photographers ended up
paying Cutting and his heirs, netting them a considerable revenue. Litigation was
even attempted to make the U.S. government pay for their use of photography during
the Civil War!
When the patent came up for renewal in 1869, it was denied in a
classic case of "never mind". The patent office itself stated that it
had erred in ever issuing the patent. The silver bromide was not
Cutting's original idea, as it had been used in both Daguerreotype and
All these early processes relied on metal or glass substrates as
vehicles for he light- sensitive coatings. The race was on to find a
flexible, lightweight, transp?arent support for the photographic
emulsions. The winner was the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin of Newark, New
Jersey, who received the patent for this product on Sept. 13, 1898, 11
years after his initial filing.
Henry Reichenback, a chemist working for Eastman Dry Plate Co.,
was also granted a patent for a similar item, after revising his
application sufficiently to get a patent on Dec. 10, 1889. It
specifically stated how to make a "photographic" pellicle as opposed to
the general nature of Goodwin's patent, and Kodak began manufacturing
their film under this patent.
Goodwin planned to manufacture the film himself, but died in
1900 before production could start in a small plant he was building. The
Goodwin film and camera company was sold to the firm of Anthony and
Scovill, which started making the film and sued the Eastman Kodak Co.
for infringement of their patent.
Fourteen years and 5500 pages of testimony later, Goodwin's wife
and the Ansco company, holders of the patent and formerly Anthony and
Scovill, finally received a $5,000,000 settlement. Maybe this suit was
on George Eastman's mind when he blew his brains out in 1932.
The photographic patents have been a blessing for some and a
bane for others and have even caused fortunes to crumble. It seems that
photography as a process could not be patented, and the same may be true
of holography. Consider the words of Minister Arago in a plea to the
French government to reward Daguerre: "Unhappily for the fortune of this
talented artist, the method cannot become the object of a patent. As
soon as it is known, everyone! will be able to apply it."
And is it possible that once one knows the secret of holography
- of comparing an object's light to a reference source, that secret
cannot be patented?
Photographic Pleasures, Cuthbert Bede
History of Photography, Beaumont Newhall
L.J.M Daguerre, Helmet and Alison Gernsheim
Photography and the American Scene, Robert Taft