History of Photography

Exploding Photographers, Disappearing Clothes, and the Development of Film

Published April 25, 2012

It’s been a while since I wrote a history article and two or three people seemed to like them. Since I’m one of those two or three people, and it’s my blog, I figured it was about time to do another one. I’ve pretty much covered the development of early cameras and lenses so it’s time to consider the way we recorded those images so other people could see them. No, I’m not talking about Facebook. I’m talking about film. Actually, I’m talking about even before film, mostly, but I really wanted to work that ‘development of film’ bit into the title. Pretty great, isn’t it? OK, maybe not.

The First Images

The very first cameras, of course, were Daguerrotypes and the images they made were positives on silver plates coated with Iodine and developed using fumes from Mercury. You can probably already tell this had a few drawbacks. Positive images can’t be reproduced so one picture was one picture — if you wanted a copy for Aunt Bessie  you had to take another picture. Silver is silver, so each picture was rather pricey (up to a month’s pay for a working man). I guess inhaling mercury fumes in the darkroom all day didn’t exactly lead to a lot of healthy old photographers walking around either.

Not long after that, the albumin process was developed. This let photographers make negative images on glass plates coated with albumen. Glass is a lot cheaper than silver, which helped make photographs affordable. Since the images were negatives you could make as many prints as you might like from a single photograph, so things like picture books came into being. Images on glass could be projected in ‘magic lanterns’ so risque images of  ladies ankles and such could be projected at the gentleman’s clubs of the day. So the albumen process made it possible for photographers to achieve the same goals they have today: getting published in book form and getting pretty girls to pose partially undressed.

Albumin had it’s drawbacks, though. The process was difficult and time consuming, requiring the plates to be prepared fresh just before each photographic shot. Carrying around a few hundred glass plates got rather heavy, and glass breaks. And the major source of albumen, in case you don’t know, is from egg whites. Photography became so popular that it actually led to egg shortages. As many as 1,000,000 eggs a year were used for photography in England alone.

Cellulose, Nitrocellulose, and Collodion

Oddly enough, the same year that Daguerre introduced the camera (1838) another Frenchman, Anselme Payen, discovered that a chemical called cellulose was the major structural component of most plants. Everything from cotton to wood was largely cellulose, in slightly different variations. Other chemists quickly found out that cellulose was a huge molecule, but made up of a small molecule (glucose) linked over-and-over into long chains.

Chemical diagram of two glucose molecules linked together, like they are in cellulose. A single cellulose molecule is made up of from 50 to many hundred glucose molecules.

I promise not to go all chemical formula on you in this article, but it’s easier to show you a picture. The hexagon in the middle of each glucose molecule is a ring of carbon atoms, and you can see there are various atoms (Oxygen and Hydrogen) sticking out from the ring. The reason chemists were all pumped about this was if you made a chemical change to cellulose, you’d be making that change to hundreds of atoms that were linked together. Cellulose is available in everything from wood to cotton, so if  you made some useful new chemical from it, you’d be able to get your starting supplies very cheaply. That’s always a good thing.

Schonbein and Exploding Cotton

Frederich Schonbein was a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Basel. He was also a complete chemistry geek. Working in the lab at the University all day wasn’t enough for Frederich, he liked to do some experimenting at home after dinner and on the weekends. Frederich’s wife had gotten pretty tired of this and forbidden him to do any more chemistry experiments at the house. But wive’s will be wive’s and go visit their sisters, and men will be men and use such opportunities to do what they are forbidden to do.

Frederich decided to take advantage of his afternoon home alone to play with Nitric Acid and some other fun things. Of course, given the karma debt this caused, he spilled the acid on the kitchen floor and grabbed his wife’s cotton apron to mop it up with. He hung the apron over the stove to dry, no doubt checking his watch to see how much time he had before the little lady got home. He needn’t have bothered: the apron exploded rather violently, blowing the windows out of the kitchen and causing various other damage.

History didn’t record the discussion Frederich and his wife had when she got home. But it does record that Frederich had accidentally discovered guncotton. The Nitric Acid had converted all of the Oxygen-hydrogen (OH) side chains to Nitrate side chains – the cellulose was now nitrocellulose (AKA Guncotton) which just loves to explode. I can assure you this is so – I first read about guncotton in college and my geek friends and I snuck into the Organic Chemistry lab to make some. In case you ever want to know, chemistry lab windows cost $145.55 each and if you blow some out you have to pay for them before you can graduate. (If you feel the need to repeat my actions, there’s a link in the references that tells you how to make your own guncotton. But remember, this is a first step to becoming a Darwin Award winner.)

Nitrocellulose, AKA guncotton

Frederich, being German, immediately realized that there would be big money selling his guncotton to the military: it was more powerful than gunpowder and didn’t leave huge clouds of smoke like gunpowder did. He immediately attracted some venture capital and built factories to manufacture guncotton. Unfortunately for Frederich and his investors, one by one all of the factories exploded and they went bankrupt. Guncotton wasn’t all that safe to work with.


Schonbein had been right, though. There was a huge market for guncotton if it could be made safe (safe explosive is kind of an oxymoron, but you know what I mean). Chemists all over the world began experimenting with cellulose and nitrates. They did make it safer, but they also learned other things. For instance, guncotton will dissolve in a solution of ether and alcohol, making a thick, syrupy liquid called collodion. When exposed to air it quickly dries to a plastic-like coating (you may have used it in products like “liquid bandage” or “compound W”).

Frederick Scott Archer, courtesy Wikepedia Commons.

Collodion was pretty cool and all, but other than instant bandages and making shiny coatings on things it didn’t appear to have a lot of uses. However, In 1850, Frederich Scott Archer found that collodion made a superb substitute for the albumen being used to coat glass plates for photography. Light sensitive chemicals dissolved in it easily, it coated plates smoothly, cost less than albumen, and it didn’t spoil (albumen comes from eggs – you know what 3 day old eggs smell like?). Most importantly it let people go back to using eggs for their natural purpose — breakfast.

The importance of Archer’s discovery really can’t be exaggerated. It became the primary way photographs were made by the mid 1850s. The process was further improved by W. B. Bolton and B. J. Sayce in the 1860s, making it somewhat simpler and more consistent.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. The plates had to be made by the photographer within 10 minutes or so of the exposure. It was sensitive only to blue light, so warm colors appear dark and cool colors light, so a person dressed in bright red or yellow would appear to be wearing dark clothes. Because clouds and sky are both shades of blue, clouds rarely are seen in collodion process images. Oh, I almost forgot — collodion is nitrocellulose (guncotton) suspended in ether and alcohol, so the odd fire or explosion did occur when preparing photographic plates.

A Photographer Discovers Synthetic Cloth

Toward the end of the collodion era, a French photographer, Hilaire de Chardonnet, spilled some of his collodion. When he cleaned up the partially dried puddle he noticed that the collodion pulled away in long, sticky threads. They reminded him of the threads of silkworms which he had seen as a student.

Hilaire de Chardonnet

Chardonnet tried forcing collodion through small holes drilled in a metal plate and found it made nice shiny threads that could be woven into cloth. He patented the process in 1885, showed his “Chardonnet silk” at the Paris exposition of 1889 to great acclaim, and opened factories to produce his marvelous new material in 1891.

Chardonnet Silk was very popular. For about a year. But Chardonnet forgot what we just talked about: collodion is largely nitrocellulose and so was the cloth he made from it. In one known incident a gentleman accidentally flicked a cigar ash on the dress of his dancing partner. Her entire gown disappeared in a blinding flash of light and heat, leaving them both with flashburns and the lady displaying more of her charms than she had intended.

Chardonnet was able to make changes to his chemical process (the fact that his original factory burned down in another nitrocellulose fire probably made it easier to make changes). By that time, however, other chemists had tried his “push a thick sticky substance through small holes to create threads” idea with other chemicals. One company found that viscose, which was created from the cellulose of wood chips, would make artificial threads just like collodion would, but with the advantage of not exploding. Viscose could not only be forced through small holes to make threads, it could be forced through thin slits to make sheets. The American Viscose Company and the Fibersilk Company produced both the cloth (which we call Rayon) and the sheets (Cellophane). The company made a major fortune and is still around today, although now it is known as the DuPont Corporation.

Dry Plates and Early Film

Despite it’s drawbacks and complexity, wet plate photography had a long life by today’s standards, over 20 years. Photographers, then, as now, were always searching for a better way, though. In the early 1870s, R.L. Maddox began putting silver bromide in a layer of gelatin on glass plates, and letting it dry — the birth of dry plate photography. It wasn’t popular at first, but a few years later Charles Harper Bennett found that heating the plates made them more stable and more light sensitive. Then, as now, increased light sensitivity attracts photographers like moths to a candle. Within a year or two, dry plate photography had largely replaced the collodion process.

In 1879, George Eastman invented a coating machine that mass produced dry plates. Suddenly photography became something people could do without years of training. Now there was no need to spend several minutes preparing a plate before taking a single photograph, you just unwrapped a dry plate and popped it in the camera. Eastman then had the brilliant idea of coating his gelatin emulsion on rolls of paper instead of sheets of glass. Since it had a paper backing, this first film wasn’t transparent like more modern film. After exposure the gelatin film layer was stripped from the paper, coated with (guess what?) collodion, forming a transparent negative that could be used to make prints.

Eastman was rather shocked that professional photographers didn’t flock to his paper film, but professionals seemed very threatened by the idea that someone without lengthy training would be able to make photographs. Charles Dodson (AKA Lewis Carroll) was, in addition to being an author, one of the premier portrait photographers of the wet plate era When he first saw the new dry plates, his only remark was “Here comes the rabble”. He stopped taking photographs entirely a year later.

Alice Lidell photographed by Charles Dodson. She was the Alice who inspired Alice in Wonderland.

Eastman was a shrewd businessman and realized for every professional already taking pictures, there were dozens of nonprofessionals who wanted to. He marketed his invention to the masses, making small, self-contained cameras that people could use with virtually no training. They could even send him their film for development and printing. Eastman named his company Kodak because he liked the letter ‘K’, he felt the name could not be mispronounced, and it didn’t resemble any word used in photography at that time. He wanted everyone to know his company was completely different from the photography suppliers of the day.


Gelatin films had the nice advantage of not exploding, but we photographers apparently just can’t leave exploding stuff alone. Especially nitrocellulose, there’s just something about guncotton that apparently attracts us. Way back in 1855 Alexander Parkes discovered that if you could dissolve your guncotton in camphor (instead of ether and alcohol) you got a thick gel that you could mold into almost any shape, which would then dry to a strong solid. By some definitions, this was the first plastic.

Being a modest man, Parkes called the substance Parkesine and started a company to manufacture and market it. Probably because of the awful name, he went bankrupt. He gave his patents to a friend, Daniel Spill, and apparently also sold them to John Hyatt, who had also independently developed a similar substance and also patented that. Both men went on to successfully market the same product as Xylonite and Celluloid, respectively. They both were successful, made lots of money, and entertained themselves by suing each other over patent rights for the next decade.

Hyatt’s first use of celluloid was the manufacture of billiard balls (I know what you’re thinking, but really this does have some relation to photography. Hang on for a minute.) Until that time billiard balls were made of ivory which made them rather expensive (this was way before PETA and the EPA, so expense was considered the only drawback to ivory billiard balls). Celluloid billiard balls were wildly successful and billiards moved from the parlors of rich men to taverns and sleazy corner pool halls where we enjoy it today. Celluloid billiard balls did have a downside, however. Celluloid is still largely made from nitrocellulose (guncotton), so if you hit the balls a bit too hard . . . .

The photographic world also saw the potential in celluloid and both George Eastman’s Kodak Company and a gentleman named Hannibal Goodwin patented methods for making photographic film on flexible sheets of celluloid. By 1889 Eastman had developed commercial roll film and along with Thomas Edison’s invention of the Kinetoscope in 1891 and Louis Lumiere’s Cinematographe in 1895, motion pictures were born. Mr. Goodwin, unfortunately, did not get the patent for his invention until 1898. He started his own film company, but died before he began production. His heirs did quite well, however, suing the Kodak company for patent infringement and receiving the amazing sum of $5,000,000 in 1914. Of course, by that time, writing a check for $5,000,000 was petty cash for Kodak.

Unfortunately, however, history does tend to repeat itself. Once again, photographers were playing with stuff made from nitrocellulose, and once again, bad things would happen. In 1897 the celluloid film being shown in a Paris movie theatre caught fire, burning the theatre to the ground and killing 120 patrons. This caused some countries to require that movie theaters line projection booths with tin and lock the projectionist inside so if the film burst into flames, there was no chance of the fire spreading. I assume this is when projectionists started getting paid more than the kids selling popcorn.

Safe Film and the End of Nitrocellulose

Despite it’s risk, celluloid film had so many advantages that it was the main type of photographic and motion picture film used until the 1930s. A different, but similar, chemical, cellulose acetate had been developed in 1904 and the Kodak company actually bought patents and manufactured film from it as early as 1908. It was more expensive than celluloid film and a bit more difficult to work with, so it was not particularly successful. It became easier to manufacture and less expensive in the 1920. Marketed as ‘safety film’, because it would melt, but not burn, when exposed to fire, cellulose acetate had largely replaced flammable celluloid by the 1930s. The ‘celluloid’ name remained in common use for decades, however.

Photography had done a lot to keep dangerous nitrocellulose in common use, so its probably fitting that photography helped end it’s use (other than for college pranks and some purposeful explosions). In the early 1900s, a Belgian chemist named Leo Baekeland emigrated to the United States, hoping to make his fortune from chemical inventions. He was unsuccessful for some years, but in 1893 he invented a new type of photographic paper that eliminated the washing and heating steps needed to develop prints. He was nearly bankrupt by this time and approached George Eastman, asking $50,000 for the patents (but having told friends he would happily take $25,000). Eastman immediately offered the amazing sum of $750,000 for Baekeland’s patents.

Baekeland, being no fool, took the money and bought himself a first class chemistry laboratory (and a house and probably some stuff for his wife). In 1907 he produced the first real plastic, which he called Bakelite. Within a few years, Bakelite had a thousand uses: it was an artificial shellac, the major insulator in all electrical appliances, made up most nonmetallic car parts, handles for kitchen equipment, plates and dishes, even knobs and telephones. It never exploded and really didn’t even burn easily. Bakelite was THE plastic for a generation. Today it has largely been replaced by newer plastics, but it’s still used as electrical insulator. And it has one other use that continues to make it popular to this day: Bakelite is the substance used to make non-exploding billiard balls.


Roger Cicala


April, 2012




Helmenstine, A. M: http://chemistry.about.com/b/2012/02/18/make-nitrocellulose-or-flash-paper.htm

Ths History of Kodak. http://www.kodak.com/ek/US/en/Our_Company/History_of_Kodak/Imaging-_the_basics.htm

Le Couteur and Burreson: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History.  Chapter 3: Cellulose. Penguin Press, 2004.

Lauer and Robinson: The History of Celluloid. Plastics Historical.

Lienhard, J. H.: Collodion. http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi608.htm

Wikepedia: Collodion Process: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collodion_process

Wikepedia: Celluloid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celluloid

Wikepedia: History of Film: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photographic_film

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in History of Photography
  • Patrick Manning

    Once again, another great article – keep ’em coming, Roger, and count me as another of the (gotta be up to at least ten or twelve by now ) people who enjoy reading them. I too had bits and pieces of the history, but certainly not all of it. Never made nitrocellulose, but did play with amonium triiodide and silver actylide back in the day. And no windows gave their lives for the betterment of science in my case. (And I’ll bet chemistry lab windows cost a lot more these days!)

  • This was such a wonderful article. You’ve got some great writing skills. I like the idea that you not only have a camera rental business, but you also give out to the photo community with these educational articles. It makes me trust you more in some way, I will definitely be giving your company a try for my future lens rental needs.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article. So much so I have added a link to it on my website Links. No wonder I prefer to “develop” digitally I am sure I would have lost fingers.

  • Mark

    @isleofGough — nitrogen triiodide indeed. Whole lot of fun if you don’t mind losing a few fingers!!!! You aren’t the only one to play though.

  • Mark

    What more could a guy ask for??? Photography, explosives and billiards all in one article plus a disappearing dress to boot!!!! Great article and as always a lot of fun to read. Thanks.

  • Randy

    Thanks so much, Roger. In this brief essay you’ve covered the history, what George Eastman did/did not invent, shown us why photography has become so simple that anyone with eyesite can easily attain the technical skills to be a “professional” and the perils of exploding balls.

  • Ben

    I’ve also been following and enjoying the articles, you write in a light entertaining style which serves to allow the information to be retained easily.

  • Brad


    I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your “history of all things photography” series. Being a fellow history, research, and photography nerd; I love reading all of these well written articles.

    Thank you!

  • Yep; Episode 9 of James Burke’s ‘Connections’ – my favourite documentary series of all time.


  • This is awesome article! I knew few fragments from the history of photography, but I didn’t get the whole picture with small bizarre details like the one with exploding billiard balls 🙂

  • Nick

    You misspelled a word in the third paragraph in the Collodion section. The first sentence should read, “The importance of Archer’s discovery really can’t be eggsaggerated.”

  • That’s why I stopped playing billiard, no fun anymore.
    Very interesting.
    Thanks !

  • Roger,
    You have a way with words. I had a bad day, and this line was the first to make me smile: Celluloid billiard balls were wildly successful and billiards moved from the parlors of rich men to taverns and sleazy corner pool halls where we enjoy it today.

    Interestingly, well at least to me, my great uncles owned a large percentage of the old silent films. They all burned down in a warehouse in New York. I always thought it was some kind of insurance scam. Now I know it was the nitrocellulose.

    Made me laugh and made me feel better about my family. A way with words, indeed!



  • Thank you for the great and educational post.


  • Another great article Roger, thank you, very entertaining and informative!

  • Dehrk

    Thanks, Roger! What a fantastic read!

  • isleofGough

    Great article and hilarious. I guess I was not the only one to make nitrocellulose (and nitrogen triiodide) as a budding chemist back in the day.

  • Roger S.

    Wow, I just relived an eposide from James Burke’s Connections2 series! (episode 7, as it turns out):


    I loved that show. Great article, as usual.

  • Promit

    Roger, please keep writing these historical articles *forever*. I absolutely adore them.

  • Pat Farrell

    Love all the history articles. And this one more than usual, since guys love things that blow up and apparently, early film did that a lot.

  • tutejszy

    Fantastic article. Didn’t know that plastic and explosives was so close to photography!

  • C’mon, I think there’s at least six or seven of us who enjoy these types of blog posts from Roger 🙂 Seriously though, the reasons I rent lenses from LensRentals.com is equally divided between your absolutely fabulous selection, customer service, and the “often” informative and “always” entertaining posts on his blog. I check for new ones each and every day!

    Thanks Rog!

  • James Bong

    I really like these history lessons as well! Keep them coming, please.

  • P. S. Makes my week in photography when you post one of these articles. Don’t stop.

  • So does this mean that if I want pretty girls to disrobe for me (my camera, of course) I have to try albumin photography? Nothing else seems to be working.

    Naturally, my wife would ban me, she seems to think I’m Edward Weston or something (sadly, for the wrong reasons).

  • Make that five.

    Thx again for the entertaining read and education.

    Bakelite was also used to make cameras like the Pouva Start or the Rheinmetall (great name for a plastic-camera 😉 Perfekta.

    Ralf C.

  • Jerry Whitten

    The count is up to “three or four”…
    Excellent article, as always, Roger; readable, informative, photographical…
    What more could be asked of internet literature?

  • Richard K

    >> Mark me down as one of those “two or three people that enjoy your history articles”

    And I’m the other one! 🙂


  • Mark me down as one of those “two or three people that enjoy your history articles”

    This one blow’d up real good! 😉

  • Richard Ward

    Thanks for adding another fun history of photography article to your blog.

    I remember reading, oddly in a history of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane, that the most dangerous part of being a photo-recon pilot in those days was the giant rolls of highly volatile film stock easily set off by aaa fire or intercepting fighters. Even worse, with the P-38s modified for recon the cameras and giant film cartridges were literally right in front of the cockpit and filled the space where all the guns used to be. eg: He was now flying a defenseless aircraft over enemy territory in a cockpit sitting right behind a nose full of explosive film.

    Richard Ward

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