Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was born on March 7, 1765 in Chalon-sur-Saône, Saône-et-Loire, to Claude Niépce, a King counselor and deposits collector for Chalonnais, and Claude Barault. His family, which also consisted of his older brother Claude, younger brother Bernard, and sister Claudine-Antoinette Niépce, had to flee the French Revolution due to suspicion of royalist sympathies.
In 1786, Joseph entered the Oratorian Brothers College in Angers to pursue his passion for physics and chemistry, and adopted the name 'Nicéphore' in honour of Saint Nicephorus, the ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople. He achieved rapid success in studying science and the experimental method, and was appointed a professor at the college soon after completing his graduation.
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Nicéphore Niépce enlisted in the National Guard in Chalon-sur-Saône in 1788, but joined the Revolutionary Army as a staff officer under Napoleon in 1792, spending years in Italy and on the island of Sardinia. He had to leave the army in 1794 due to ill health and became the Administrator of the district of Nice, but was reportedly forced to resign the following year due to lack of popularity.
In 1797, he travelled to Sardinia with his family and his brother Claude, who had joined him in Nice, a trip which is believed to have inspired the two brothers to experiment with photography. They undertook their first projects as inventors back in Nice in 1798 and developed a new combustion engine based on the principle of air expansion during an explosion.
Along with his family and his brother, he returned to his homeland in 1801 to continue their scientific research and reunited with his mother, younger brother and sister. Taking charge of their family estates from their mother, who managed those since the death of their father in 1785, they began living independently as wealthy gentlemen-farmers, raising beets and producing sugar.
The Niépce brothers were the first to build and patent the world's first internal combustion engine, the Pyréolophore, in 1807, using controlled dust explosions of Lycopodium powder. The machine was first installed on a boat that ran on the river Saône, which was followed by another engine with a fuel injection system ten years later.
Entering a competition opened by the imperial government in 1807, the two brothers made improvements to the original Marly machine located in Marly-le-Roi to pump water from the Seine river to the Palace of Versailles. They made several changes to the model and were able to lift water 11 feet with a stream drop of 4 feet 4 inches, but in December 1809 the task was given to engineer Périer.
Nicéphore's interest in photography stemmed from his fascination with the new art of lithography and his lack of skills to pursue that, which prompted him to use the drawing aid of the camera obscura. Like Thomas Wedgwood and Henry Fox Talbot, he was also inspired by the 'light paintings' created by the camera obscura, and sought to develop a better way of capturing the images other than tracing over them.
The earliest references of him successfully capturing small camera images on paper coated with silver chloride comes from his letters to his sister-in-law in 1816, making him the first to achieve this. However, he could only capture 'negative' images which were dark in light portions and vice versa, and darkened all over when brought into light for viewing.
After experimenting with several substances that were affected by light, he concentrated focus on Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt which artists were using as an acid-resistant coating on copper plates for making etchings. Realizing that bitumen coating became less soluble after being exposed to light, he used solvent lavender oil to rinse unhardened parts that were shielded from light, exposing the base lithographic stone or metal plate.
Using this process of 'heliography' or 'sun drawing' as he called it, he made the world's first permanent photographic image, a contact-exposed copy of an engraving of Pope Pius VII, in 1822. However, the earliest surviving 'photocopies' are an engraving of a man with a horse and another of a woman with a spinning wheel, both of which were created by him in 1825.
According to letters he sent to his brother Claude, he first achieved success in creating a permanent photograph of an image by using bitumen coating and the camera obscura in 1824. After the first copy was effaced, he recreated that image of a view from his window on a sheet of bitumen-coated pewter in 1826-27, which is the oldest known camera photograph in existence.
Partnering with Louis Daguerre, he devised an improved process for creating permanent photographic images with a camera called 'physautotype', using lavender oil distillate as the photosensitive substance.
Following his death in 1833, Daguerre continued to improve the process and named it the 'daguerréotype', and was able to convince the French government of a yearly stipend, with a portion going to Niépce's estate.
Personal Life & Legacy
Nicéphore Niépce got married to Agnes Romero in 1794 during his stay in Nice. The couple had a son named Isidore who formed a partnership with Daguerre after his father's death.
Under financial difficulties, his brother Claude had traveled to Paris and then to England to raise money to extend the patent of the Pyréolophore, but ended up squandering much of the family fortune. Nicéphore visited him in London in 1827, one year before his death, only to find him in a state of delirium.
By the time Nicéphore died of a stroke on July 5, 1833 none of his inventions were officially acknowledged. He was so destitute at the time of his death that the municipality had to finance his grave in the cemetery of Saint-Loup de Varennes.