Open Source

The Wandering Moon, from Blake's illustrations to Milton

A Model of Open Source Behavior?

A question has been bothering me for the last few years: why did it take so long to invent photography? Studying the romantic period in Britain, I was constantly amazed at how forward thinking and innovative they were. Sir Humphry Davy, when he wasn’t rubbing two ice-cubes together or getting his friend Coleridge to sniff nitrous, figured the basics out in 1802.

The experiments were economically motivated. Working for Josiah Wedgewood, Davy pottered about with ways of reproducing drawings without employing expensive engravers, like William Blake. It was a limited success, though, because the images couldn’t be made permanent. For a time, the engraver’s jobs were safe.

John Herschel, distinguished astronomer and friend of computer pioneer Charles Babbage, found the solution to the problem in 1819— sodium hyposulfate, now commonly known as “fixer” (go figure). However, it wasn’t until the race for patents in 1839 that Herschel told his friend Fox Talbot about it.

The first negative, shown close to actual size

Puttering around yesterday, I happened upon The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot. The website won’t be completed until May of 2003, but it promises to be fascinating. What happened between the production of this negative in 1835, and the perfection of the process in 1839 is probably well preserved in letters. Interestingly enough, Talbot also corresponded with Humphry Davy. I have little doubt that this venture into photography was economically motivated, and patent driven. It wasn’t an open source environment in England at the time.

Fox Talbot was a scholar, and there may have been no work on the project between 1835-9 because he was easily distracted. He was a specialist in classical languages and mathematics, not chemistry. It is thought that he didn’t pursue photography during this time, because he thought Daguerre’s work was similar to his own. It wasn’t. So, the race was on from 1839-41 to secure patents for his own unique process. One of the interesting oversights in the patent race was that the use of “fixer” was not patented, even after it was discovered to work.

Daguerre did an incredibly bold thing. He made his invention open source— that is, to everyone except England. Anyone was free to modify and improve his process, except those in England (where he patented it), who had to pay a license fee. There was an instant boom in daguerreotypes and all their variations around the globe after 1840. The freely available process spurred improvement and modification to Talbot’s calotype process, to make it more economically competitive.

The problem with daguerreotypes is that there is only one original; it can’t be infinitely reproduced like the negative/positive process developed by Talbot. Daguerreotypes were ultimately, of lesser commercial potential. But it lit a fire under the commercial developers to make their product more useful, in order to compete. There’s a lesson in that somewhere. Hopefully, it isn’t that open-source has a limited utility and lifespan. Daguerreotypes anyone?