History of Photography

From the Great Pyramid to Toy Trains: Early Flash Photography

Published July 3, 2013


Whenever out-of-print books start arriving at Lensrentals, they know I’m about to write a history article. It happened again last week, and one of the young employees asked me, “why do you write these things?” I told them because I have urochordataphobia — I fear the example of the sea squirt.

A young sea squirt looks like a small fish and swims around all day doing what most sea creatures do (mostly avoiding being eaten by bigger sea creatures). When it gets older, though, one day it sits on a rock and does nothing for a while. Its brain wastes away, it becomes completely immobile, and pretty soon it looks just like a sponge. Now that I’m older, I fear if I ever stop shoveling information at my brain and making it write these things, pretty soon it will find a rock to sit on. And I know where that leads.

Those of you who hate my history articles, please bear with me for a couple of posts. It’s just my urochordataphobia acting up. For those of you who like these history articles, read on and I’ll tell you how flash photography links to toy trains, torpedoes, Alien Astronauts, and common sayings that no one understands anymore.

Early Photographic Lighting


Mid-1800s photography, like my own present-day photography, was basically limited to ambient light. Burning a block of calcium oxide in a flame fed by oxygen and hydrogen gases created the brightest artificial light available in those days.  The common name for calcium oxide is ‘lime’ (like you spread on you lawn, not like you make delicious pie with) so this type of light, which was used extensively in theaters, was called limelight. No one has used limelight for well over a century, but people still talk about movie stars as being ‘in the limelight’, even though they generally have no idea what a limelight is.


A limelight. Note the input tubes on the left for oxygen and hydrogen gas lines. Image from Compulite Stagelight History: http://www.compulite.com/stagelight/html/history.html


Limelights were amazingly bright, giving off about 1,000 watts in today’s terms (1).  They never really caught on as a photography light source, though. A limelight required a full-time operator to regulate the oxygen and hydrogen gases and rotate the block of lime. Additionally, if calcium oxide gets wet the resultant chemical reaction gets so hot it starts fires. (In fact, it was probably the ‘igniting’ ingredient in Greek Fire.) Having something that starts fires if it gets wet sitting next to tanks of oxygen and hydrogen in wooden buildings probably isn’t the best of ideas.


Greek Fire www.greece.org


More importantly, limelight doesn’t give off very much blue light, which is what early photographic plates were exposed by. The result, for portraits at least, was the subject was in a light so bright they wanted to close their eyes, while the camera still required a fairly long exposure time.

Magnesium and Flash Powder


Photographers have a long history of fascination with explosive  chemicals, so they certainly were aware that a ‘controlled’ explosion could be a good source of bright light. Magnesium was readily available and photographers quickly found that burning strips of magnesium provided a fine photographic light source — very bright and providing a full spectrum of light, including blue light.

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. It was rather difficult to ignite so you needed a fire handy to get things started. Once ignited, however, Magnesium burns so hotly (3,100 °C or 5,610 °F) that it has a tendency to melt whatever it is you’re holding it in and then burn through whatever is under that. (Sometimes this was the photographer.)

Burning magnesium is nearly impossible to stop burning until it’s all burned up. It happily burns not only in oxygen, but also in pure nitrogen, and pure carbon dioxide (which is what they put in fire extinguishers). Magnesium not only burns under water, it actually burns water, creating magnesium oxide and hydrogen. Hydrogen, as the Hindenburg demonstrated, is happy to burn so trying to put out burning magnesium with water actually increases the flame.

Flash Powder

Faced with this list of problems, photographers, being photographers, focused on, “So, how can we make it easier to ignite?” Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland and a skilled photographer, was studying the Great Pyramid of Giza and needed photographs of the dark interior chambers. Having trouble lighting his magnesium flares, he decided that gunpowder, which started burning very easily, mixed with some magnesium powder, just might do the trick.

Surprisingly, it worked pretty well and Smyth’s pictures and thousands of careful measurements of the Pyramid accomplished two things. First, it gave him some temporary credibility as an authority on the Pyramid. Second, it allowed him to demonstrate that while not all scientists are idiots, some certainly are. Smyth was a firm believer in the crackpot theories of John Taylor who believed that the Pyramid was actually constructed by Noah (of Ark fame) and that the British were directly descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Using the thousands of measurements he took (and shamelessly manipulating them) Smyth ‘discovered’ that the British inch was directly related to the ‘Pyramid inch’ and the Hebrew cubit. That meant the inch was a holy measurement decreed by God (and therefore the metric system used by the French demonstrated their godlessness). He was scientifically discredited since many of his measurements were found to be wrong (heck, he was completely convinced the Great Pyramid was the oldest pyramid, which is absolutely not true) and he later changed others to fit his theories. Smyth became the original ‘Pyramidiot‘. His writings were incorporated into a half-dozen religious cults (some of which are going strong today) and later spawned the ‘ancient astronaut’ theories.

Word of Smyth’s gunpowder-magnesium powder spread much more quickly than his Pyramid theories. In the 1800s (or 1700s or 1900s for that matter), the Germans pretty much lived and breathed explosive chemistry, so they probably didn’t take well to this Scotsman inventing this magnesium-gunpowder mixture. Almost immediately, a couple of German-Austrian chemists, Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke, mixed fine magnesium powder with potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide to produce Blitzlicht, the original flash powder.

Blitzlicht changed everything. Well many things. It was available in premeasured packets that could be inserted into igniter trays and ignited easily and predictably.  It gave an extremely bright flash that lasted 1/30th of a second. That was a short enough time to make an exposure without the subject blinking (2). Actual explosions with flash powder were much less frequent than with gunpowder-magnesium mixtures, although they still occurred with some regularity (3).

It wasn’t perfect, of course. There was a big cloud of thick smoke left after the flash. There was also the problem of sparks of burning magnesium flying about, starting a fire here and there.


Modern reuse of a Circa 1909 flash powder lamp. Credit Gentry’s Daguerreian Studio http://www.flickr.com/photos/11964447@N02/3169218441


But the light was good and the cost was low. Photographers were pleased.

In fact, flash powder continued in use long after other forms of lighting were available, largely because it was so inexpensive. It had one other advantage that kept it in use through the 1930s: because flash powder burns just fine underwater, it was the lighting of choice (the only choice, really, flashbulbs tend to be crushed by pressure) for early underwater photographers (3).


Photograph by Charles Martin & W.H. Longley, National Geographic, 1926.


The Beginning of Toy Trains

Once again I will demonstrate why almost everything worthwhile in the world owes its origins to photography. Soon after there was flash powder, there were flash pans – long trays with a handle that the flash powder was placed in and ignited with a spark.

The only currently manufactured flashpan. http://www.graflexllc.com/


Joshua Cohen was a college dropout who worked as a battery lamp assembler at the ACME lamp factory. In 1899 he patented a battery-powered igniter that would safely and consistently ignite the flash powder in a pan and a year later patented an improved device. Now flash pans had a battery and switch in the handle and a single photographer could ignite his flash powder with one hand while controlling the camera with the other.

Cohen’s invention was also purchased by the U. S. government, which used it as the igniter for underwater mines and early torpedoes. With the money he received he opened his own manufacturing company that made small electric fans. Cohen was successful, but decided to change his business to one that involved his hobby  (I would have liked this guy). I should probably mention Joshua’s full name was Joshua Lionel Cohen and his hobby was model trains. When he started putting electric motors into his model trains, Lionel Trains was born.

There you have it, once again. If it weren’t for photography, none of you guys would ever have opened up a model railroad kit for Christmas.

Credit: www.olsonhobbies.com



The very first flash bulb actually predates the electronic igniter for flash powder. Not much is known of its designer, but a French diver and photographer, Louis Boutan, asked an engineer known only as Monsieur Chauffour to design a flash for underwater use. He enclosed a magnesium ribbon inside a glass jar filled with oxygen and used an electric current to ignite the magnesium.

Paul Vierkotter who placed a magnesium strip inside a glass bulb filled with low-pressure oxygen invented practical flash bulbs in 1925. The lower pressure helped prevent the bulb from shattering during the flash. Once again, a German, Johannes Ostermeyer, perfected the device, substituting thin aluminum foil for magnesium. Aluminum has a very high ignition point, so the flash contained a small chemical primer that was ignited by an electric current.


Osram Vacublitz. http://www.lampenmuseum.de/


Ostermeyer’s bulb was marketed in Germany as the Vacublitz. Several books (4) state that General Electric Company, Ltd. had the marketing rights in Great Britain and used the name Sashalite as a marketing tool. They consider this the first celebrity endorsement in photography. “Sasha” (Alexander Stewart, a Scotsman who felt the name made him sound Continental) was a well-known celebrity photographer at the time, widely recognized for his careful lighting.


Coco Chanel, photograph by Sasha, 1929


The reality seems somewhat different. Stewart already had patented some lighting equipment before the flashbulb, and patented modifications after its introduction (5). The London Morning Post announced that Stewart had purchased the rights to the flash bulb and was marketing it himself, and showed photos taken inside a submarine using the new lights in September, 1930. The British Patent Ostermeyer took out was issued in 1930 “as used in the Sashalite” and his corporation, Sashalite, Ltd. may have simply contracted with G. E. to manufacture or perhaps co-market the bulbs.

In any case, things apparently didn’t work out that well for Sasha; he set up a corporation (Sashalite, Ltd.) to handle the flashbulb business and the corporate bylaws stated all profits would be returned to him. When the company’s Board of Directors kept some of the profits as working capital, he sued his own company and lost. Stewart v. Sashalite Ltd (1936) is still used as a reference in Commonwealth courts.

And Then

The development of flash didn’t end here, of course. After World War II flashbulbs rapidly improved, becoming safer, brighter, and faster. The ability to synchronize flash with the camera shutter was developed. (Prior to that you opened your shutter and used the flash to expose, then closed the shutter.) Multiple flash bulb arrays for taking multiple rapid shots were developed. But these were almost all corporate advancements and I’m more interested in writing about the non-corporate personalities.

But while all these corporate flash advances were taking place, a most interesting photographer was investigating lighting (and a lot of other things) from a different direction. I’ll talk about ‘Doc’ in the next post.


Roger Cicala


July, 2013

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
  • Gennadi Samoluk

    Fantastic article. Thank you very much!

  • David Chorley

    Oxidation is the loss of electrons, reduction is the gaining of electrons and is only historically associated with oxygen. Once you have enough initial energy in the system Mg will donate its valence electrons to N2 via an exothermic reaction which sure looks like burning

  • I’d point out, to be fully accurate, the bulk of the burning Hindenberg wasn’t the Hydrogen gas in the envelope, but the Aluminum coated fabric surrounding it.

  • Regarding burning magnesium, Navy planes tend to be made with a lot of it since it’s light and strong. When planes catch fire on an aircraft carrier, they will push the planes overboard rather than try to put out the fire (and risk the fire burning down through the ship).

    Also known as a Class Delta fire (includes other metals like Phosphorous and Sodium fires).

  • Brian

    Flash paper is paper that has been treated with nitric and sulfuric acids to form nitrocellulose. It burns hot and fast and produces little ash.

  • NancyP

    Holy Moley! Roger is an anesthesiologist! That’s quite a career change: complaining surgeons then; complaining photographers now. Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of panic, then; Hours of blogging punctuated by moments of panic, now (the bear ate that Nikon D800?? How do I clean bear slobber off the lens and camera??). Hey, it’s ok to use the phrase “exothermic reaction” in this blog. Ever think about fireworks chemistry? Anyway, keep up the history articles.

  • Nelson

    The flash bulb really looks like it has pubic hair inside 😐

  • Bernd Schmidt

    Count me as someone who loves your history articles. They’ve all been a lot of fun to read.

  • BozillaNZ

    Scott: oxidation in Chemistry means losing electron, so yeah, reactions without oxygen can still be called oxidation.

  • Don S.

    My father used “Flash Paper” sometime in the 1930’s. A coat hanger and a couple paper clips would hold the paper which I guess was coated with flash powder.

    I wonder which was more dangerous to store, powder or paper.

  • Robert L.

    This is about my favorite article to date – would have made an excellent episode of ‘Connections’. Thank you!

  • Zak McKracken

    @ KimH:
    My thoughts exactly when I read first about magnesium alloys. But no worries, they don’t really burn. I mean, people make combustion engines out of them. The magic word here is “alloy”, and the main ingredient in this alloy is aluminium, not magnesium. Thus, the thing is much more difficult so set on fire than pure magnesium. Although, as we have learned today, aluminium can burn, too (but then, so can iron: try using steel wool and a 9V battery). Which contradicts all I’ve said so far. The point being: If it’s hot enough for your magnesium alloy camera case to catch fire, the thing that set it on fire is probably a more dangerous fire hazard than magnesium alloys.

  • Roger Cicala

    I haven’t heard ‘hate the history articles’, but I’ve had more than a few that basically said ‘we come here for Geek stuff, not history’. Personally, I think the history of Geek is more fascinating than ‘current Geek’.


  • L.P.O.

    Roger, honestly, has there ever been anyone who have said that they _hate_ your history articles? If I really force myself into it, I can (barely) imagine a person that would be indefferent to these articles, but outright _hating_ them? No, sorry, *POP*, my mind just exploded trying to do that. Just can’t.

    As for my own opinion of these history articles, keep them coming! I’m younger than you (though old enough to remember using my parents’ camera with its 4x flash cube), and I love to read easily written articles about developments in photography and the eccentric personalities connected to them.

    Actually, now that I think of it, might you not be just fishing for these kinds of comments when talking about haters, hmm… >:-)

    Have a nice day!

  • Pat M

    Faced with this list of problems, photographers, being photographers, focused on, “So, how can we make it easier to ignite?”

    I have to say, that line literally made me laugh out loud. It burns so hot that it melts through what you’re holding it with then starts on what’s holding that, and you can’t put it out with easily available things (in fact, some typical fire extinguishing agents will make it burn MORE)… Hmmm… How do we make it easier to set fire to it?!? Love it!

    Great write up, Roger – keep ’em coming.

  • intrnst

    I was just re-reading your hist… UARTs* (urochordataphobiarticles) these days, I was missing them.
    Welcome back.

    * and yes, computer geek alert.

  • Mitch

    Love your history articles! I remember from high school biology that Lycopodium powder (clubmoss) was used as a flash powder early on. Just checked Wikipedia, and they do mention it. I don’t know the time frame of when it might have been used. Did you come across it in your research?
    Thanks again for an interesting piece.

  • Nqina Dlamini

    I enjoyed this history excursion. I can’t wait for the next installment.
    Thank You Sir.

  • Xi

    I’ve always loved reading scientific and technical histories from this blog.


    I can’t help but pointing out that, as Tony had indicated, to modern chemists oxidation means losing/getting less control of (an atom’s) electrons. N2 is stable, but can still serve as oxidizer when the reducer is strong enough.

  • Scott


    You’re correct. But Nitrogen is not an oxidizer in it’s diatomic form.

  • Tony

    Roger, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Doc E.

    Scott, the term “oxidation” has a broader meaning. Fluorine is a more powerful oxidizer than oxygen. As with so many other things, the first example got the naming rights.

  • Scott

    I also feel sorry for the younger photographers who haven’t had the opportunity to play hot potato swapping flash bulbs|!

  • Scott

    Roger – Agree. But I did get you to say exothermic! 🙂 Nice to have an opportunity to exercise some of the parts of my brain that haven’t been used since college. Had to take a lot of chemistry for my degree (BS in Chemical Engineering), as I know you did as well to get through med school.

  • Josh

    That was a fun post to read! I’m old enough (but not that old) to remember when flash bulbs were still common. The memories of my first camera, a Kodak Brownie reflex have come flooding back.

    We now take high speed sensors and electronic strobes for granted. I think that learning the old fashioned way can helps us keep a greater appreciation of the photographic arts.

  • KimH

    Another “orthogonal” (sorry, cant seem to find a better expression) article for those who are suffering Urochordata phobia – I Like! Can’t help to think about this “bomb” I have in my 5D on a manfrotto head. Is that not a pound of magnesium alloy? Wonder when this will be a problem to bring on airplanes…

  • Roger Cicala

    Scott, I know you’re correct, but you can understand my desperation to avoid using the term “exothermic reaction” in this post. Actually, there has to be plenty of heat, too, so it would be hard to ignite Mg in pure N2 gas, but if you had some already burning and plenty hot, 3Mg + N2 = Mg3N and some more heat (actually there would be some of this going on even when we’re burning Mg in air).

    As you point out no oxygen is consumed in this reaction. The really fun part, though, would be if there is some water handy, we get another nice exothermic reaction between the Mg3N2 and water with lots of ammonia gas given off. Man, I was born too late. I’d much rather be playing with photochemicals than photoelectrons.

  • Scott

    (chemistry geekiness alert on)

    I don’t think Magnesium will burn in an environment of pure Nitrogen. Burn implies oxidation, and there is no oxidation without oxygen.

    Magnesium can extract the oxygen form Carbon dioxide and water and oxidize.

    (Chemistry Geekiness alert off)

    Great Article! Thanks

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