Ask A Scientist

Who invented the first camera?

Asked by: Freddy Purpora
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Mr. Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Sports, video games, eating
Career Interest: Actor/comedian

Answer from Jonathan Cohen

University Photographer

Research area: I photograph all things Binghamton University from athletics to architechtural images.
Interests/hobbies: Modern Art (love MoMA), swimming, skiing, carpentry and gardening
Webpage: www.binghamton.edu/photos 

The modern camera we think of today is actually the result of two major scientific breaktrhoughs.  The first dates back as early as the 5th century BC, when Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti discover that light rays coming through a pinhole would result in the projection of an inverted image of a subject on the opposit wall, thus creating the first pinhole camera.

Centuries later, in about 1000 AD, the first hand-held camera obscura - an optical device that can project an image of its surroundings on a screen or wall - was invested by Islamic scholar and scientist Alhazen, who is considered the father of modern optics. Camera obscuras were used by artists and scientists who recorded the projections by drawing what they saw, a process that brought us one step closer to what we know as photography.  Some early camera obscuras were as large as a tent or a small cabin and used for both educational and entertainment purposes.

The second major breakthrough leading to development of the modern camera, was the invention of the actual photographic process itself. In 1727, German professor Johann Schulze discovered that silver nitrate became dim when it was exposed to light. One hundred years later, Frenchman Joseph Niepce took the first photograph - of a street corner - on a silver plate. His invention, which he called a heliograph, took eight hours to expose, but it eventually faded.

Shortly after, Louis Daguerre, who partnered with Niepce, discovered a method to preserve the images and to produce them images were known as Daguerrotypes, one at a time - in less than 30 minutes.  At almost the same time, British inventor Henry Fox Talbot developed a process to produce what he called calotypes that allowed multiple images to be printed from one negative.  Other discoveries around the same time included the first glass negative, which eventually became the parent of plastic film.

It took these many discoveries in both optics and photographic processes to bring up to development of today's modern cameras.

Last Updated: 9/18/13