Joseph Nicephore Niepce

Joseph Nicephore Niepce

French inventor, best known as the discoverer of photography.
Date of Birth: 07.03.1765
Country: France

  1. Joseph Nicéphore Niepce: The Inventor of Photography
  2. Early Life and Career
  3. The Invention of Photography
  4. Legacy

Joseph Nicéphore Niepce: The Inventor of Photography

Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, a French inventor, is best known as the pioneer of photography. In today's world, photography has become accessible to everyone, allowing individuals to focus on choosing the perfect composition and capturing the right moment without worrying about the technology behind image creation and reproduction. However, not too long ago, photography required not only artistic taste but also knowledge of complex skills such as developing photographic materials and printing, as well as access to materials, chemicals, darkrooms, and more. Creating the very first photographs in human history was particularly labor-intensive and challenging.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce

Early Life and Career

Joseph Nicéphore Niepce was born on March 7, 1765, in Chalon-sur-Saône, a city in Burgundy, France. His family belonged to both the aristocratic and legal classes - his mother came from a dynasty of well-known legal experts, while his father was a royal adviser. Joseph received a good education in college, and he developed a keen interest in mechanics. Although his family initially prepared him for a career in the clergy, he studied oratory skills but later joined the army. In 1792, amidst the revolutionary events, Niepce resigned due to his family's loyalty to the king. However, after Napoleon came to power, he returned to the military, fought in Italy and Sardinia, until he was forced to retire due to health issues in 1795. Niepce then became a civil servant in Nice and married Agnes Romero.

In 1801, Joseph returned home and started a family business cultivating beets and producing sugar. His retirement was likely due to the dissatisfaction of the townspeople, who believed that Niepce was too lenient with financial matters. This behavior was influenced by his older brother Claude, who was passionate about inventing. The collaboration between the Niepce brothers on the pyreolophore (a precursor to the internal combustion engine) led to the creation of a boat equipped with such an engine. In 1807, Joseph and Claude Niepce obtained a temporary patent for this invention, but they failed to prove its efficiency within 10 years. Claude moved to England in search of support for his work, but he squandered the family fortune and suffered a decline in mental health. The principles of the internal combustion engine were eventually developed in 1824 by the physicist Carnot, who was once a member of the commission for testing the pyreolophore.

The Invention of Photography

In 1826, Joseph Niepce pursued a new invention - the improvement of the lithography method. Instead of using a heavy stone, he utilized a thin sheet of tin onto which the image was drawn. Since Joseph himself was not skilled in drawing, he recalled his youthful interest in creating images using a camera obscura on paper soaked in silver salts. As the images created using this method were not permanent, Niepce decided to use bitumen powder dissolved in lavender oil. The image was exposed for eight hours, then treated with lavender oil and kerosene. Lines were drawn on the hardened image and transferred onto paper, creating a technique named "heliography." Joseph's additional invention was a diaphragm for the camera obscura, which provided clarity to the image. This way, the first surviving photograph was created - a view from a window dated back to 1826.

In 1827, Joseph traveled to England and presented his invention to the Royal Society. However, he followed his brother's advice and did not disclose the technological secrets. The invention was not recognized, and Joseph Niepce entered into a contract with Louis Daguerre, the owner of the Paris Diorama. By this time, Niepce was gravely ill, and he signed the agreement in favor of his son Isidore. According to the contract, Daguerre received a complete description of the heliography process, including advanced methods such as using silver and copper plates, image fixation, intensification with iodide pairs, and more, along with all the necessary equipment.


Joseph Nicéphore Niepce passed away in 1833. By this time, he was practically bankrupt, and his funeral was held at the state's expense. After Niepce's death, Louis Daguerre further improved the camera and the technology of developing and fixing images, becoming the creator of the industry for obtaining photographic images from life.