Category Archives: Photography

Time travel – for the hard of hearing?

In the last few days, an awful lot of web space has been devoted to the lady ‘time traveller’ filmed in 1928, who appears to be chatting away on a mobile. 

Of course back then, the film crew were focusing on a Charlie Chaplin premiere, rather than splits in the space-time continuum. But through the eyes of those living in 2010, where mobile phones are omnipresent, the first reaction of many is to reach a fantastical conclusion.

Alternative readings of this silent clip have quickly appeared. The most popular being that she’s using a hearing device – possibly a Siemens carbon amplifier.  The hand position looks right… but who’s she talking to?

Ardente hearing aid

Ardente carbon hearing aid (Science Museum)

Keeping with carbon hearing aid theme, could she be wearing a device like the one above – one of several designs in our collections. Many include palm-sized microphone units, often attached to a cord around the wearer’s neck.  She could be adjusting the volume by talking into it.

Compact ear trumpet

Compact ear trumpet (Science Museum)

Or maybe it’s something more old-fashioned like this small, flat ear trumpet. It is British, but typical of compact ‘mobile-sized’ models in very common use just a few years earlier. The ear-piece turns in at 90 degrees to the body with the device held alongside the cheek. 

Unless identified as a long-gone great aunt, we’re unlikely to find out precisely what she was doing. 

She’s definitely talking though. Did the cameras make her nervous? Or is she manoeuvering around for a better signal – oblivious to the total lack of service providers and phone masts?

Maybe she was just talking to herself. A lot of people do. But with all respect to the lady in question, when it comes to time travellers I kind of hope they’ll look as out of place and time – and as cool – as the mystery guy in shades who turned up on a Canadian Museum site a few years back.

Now, where did he come from?

A glass act

Today in 1839, John Herschel made the first photograph on glass. The plate, with the image now faded almost beyond recognition, is in the care of our colleagues at the National Media Museum.

The first photograph on glass, 1839, is kept in a commemorative case (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

The image was of the 40ft telescope built by John’s father William, something of  a tourist attraction due to its size. By the time this photograph was taken only the telescope support frame remained, with the tube already removed – the structure had begun to rot after years of disuse and John set about dismantling the telescope for the safety of his small children.

This is one of only 25 prints made from the original photograph (Science Museum).

A few years later, Herschel discovered the cyanotype or blueprinting process. His friend Anna Atkins used this process to make the first book with photographic illustrations, Photographs of British Algae.

Anna Atkins's cyanotype of a British Fern, 1853 (National Media Museum / Science & Society).

In 1867 another female pioneer of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron, made this extraordinary portrait of the ageing Herschel, who had been a longstanding supporter of her work.

Herschel at 75, by Julia Margaret Cameron (NMeM / Royal Photographic Society / Science & Society)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed by now that I tend to bang on about the Herschel family a lot (like here, or here). It’s rather hard not to, as various members were hugely influential across a wide range of the sciences. And I haven’t even started on the younger members of the family yet … more blogs to follow, no doubt!

Catching the Sun

So, did any of you make it to Easter Island to see last weekend’s total solar eclipse? The path of totality crossed very few landmasses, so observing this eclipse was for the most intrepid travellers. Next weekend marks the 150th anniversary of a solar eclipse which was somewhat less remote – but observed by some very intrepid travellers, who for the first time used photography to settle a scientific debate. 

On 18 July 1860, Warren De la Rue and his team eagerly awaited the eclipse in their makeshift wooden observatory at Rivabellosa in northern Spain. The observatory and its contents – some two tons of apparatus – had been transported from Plymouth to Bilbao on board HMS Himalaya and then by stagecoach to Rivabellosa, where De la Rue persuaded a local farmer to set aside his threshing floor for the observatory.

De la Rue's eclipse observatory as shown in the Illustrated London News, 1860 (Science Museum).

The key piece of apparatus was the Kew Photoheliograph, designed by De la Rue a few years before. The first instrument specifically designed to photograph celestial objects, it was regularly used at Kew Observatory to record images of the Sun and Moon. The astronomers hoped that its wet collodion plates, with their short exposure times, could record the prominences visible during a solar eclipse. At the time it was not known whether these were part of the Sun, or an effect of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Kew Photoheliograph is on display in Cosmos & Culture (Science Museum).

Working in the hot Spanish summer, the astronomers only had a few minutes to develop each plate before the wet collodion dried. But they successfully recorded prominences on several plates – De la Rue described them with names including Cauliflower and Boomerang. When the photographs were compared with ones taken by Fr Angelo Secchi 500km away at Desierto de las Palmas, the two sets were so similar that they proved prominences are intrinsic to the Sun.

An expedition photograph of the eclipse before totality (Science Museum).

For a lively account of the Rivabellosa expedition – including the tale of how the observatory almost burned down just minutes before the eclipse(!) - check out Stuart Clark‘s The Sun Kings.