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Faster photographs: Electroplate and the daguerrotype

Published: 23 March 2023

Today we're used to being able to take a picture with our phone whenever we want. Almost without thinking, we take dozens of pictures every day. But this wasn't always the case—making a photo used to be a slow and difficult process.

What is a daguerreotype?

The daguerreotype was one of the first photographic processes, announced in 1839 by Frenchman, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. The photographic image is formed on a highly polished metal plate, usually copper coated with silver. The image is viewed by reflecting the negative image into a black surface.

Daguerreotypes were presented in small cases that allowed images of loved ones to be carried around—not unlike the way we keep pictures of our loved ones on our phone screens today.

A small photograph in a leather case lined with velvet Science Museum Group Collection
Daguerreotype portrait in a leather case, lined with embossed velvet, 1839-1860

Photography in the 1840s – A slow process

In the 1840s photography was still in its early years. Photographs were the result of skilled labour and took several hours to produce. The daguerreotype photographic process involved laborious polishing of a metal plate to a mirror finish and the use of dangerous chemical vapours such as iodine, bromine and mercury to sensitise the plates to light and develop the images.

Dark, oval photo of one Victorian man taking a photo of another
Jabez Hogg photographing Mr Johnson in Richard Beard's studio, c.1843

Silver plating and photography

The silver plate used for the surface of the daguerreotype plate was traditionally produced by layering silver on top of base metals and fusing the two layers together. This process of ‘cladding’ involved heating and rolling with heavy machinery. The material properties of this silver plate dictated the quality of the final image.

Technological improvements to silver plating were part of the long history of metal trades in Birmingham and were driven by a competitive commercial environment. In 1840s Birmingham these industrial improvements saw electro-plating replace the labour-intensive processes of silver cladding used to manufacture silver plate (primarily for tableware).

 

Silver plate circular salver made by Elkington & Co.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Silver plate circular salver made by Elkington & Co.

The investment of large companies such as Elkington and the experiments of many smaller independent chemists in the city led to advances in electro-plating technology throughout the 1840s.

Line drawing of men working in different areas of a large workshop Birmingham Museums Trust, CC0
Trade card for Elkington, Birmingham, 1860

These advances in the production of silver plate made the electro-plate process more affordable than traditional plating techniques. Importantly for photography, they also altered the material qualities of the silver plate in a way which was useful for the daguerreotype.

Improving the silver plating process – Birmingham innovates

Dr John Percy was a metallurgist, close friend of George Richards Elkington (of the Elkington electro-plating company) and a Professor of Organic Chemistry. In 1844, he and George Shaw, a Lecturer in Chemistry, were experimenting with the light sensitive qualities of photographic materials at Queens College, on Paradise Street, Birmingham, seeking faster photographic processes. Percy recorded these experiments in notebook which is now in our collection.

 As a result of these experiments, Percy suggested the use of silver chloride vials as an early ‘actinometer’, or light meter, for photographers to use when measuring exposure times. 

John Woolrich, a colleague of Shaw and Percy at Queens College, invented a magneto-plating machine to improve the consistency of the electro-plating process with a reliable, constant power supply. 

Metal and wooden generator Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0
Woolrich electrical generator

The magneto plating machine was used by several Birmingham plating firms to produce silver plate before Elkington eventually obtained the rights to use the patent and improved its design in 1845.
 
Innovations in electro-plate materials were used in the manufacture of photographic silver plates for the daguerreotype process in Birmingham, and by the early 1850s there were three separate companies manufacturing daguerreotype plates in the city.

How did electro-plate improve photography?

The use of electro-plate for photography offered three advantages over clad plates that were produced during the same period.

Electro-deposition produced pure silver which removed chemical issues and resulting marks on images caused by impure silver. 

The slow deposition of the magneto plate process resulted in a softer surface to the silver, which greatly sped up the laborious polishing process. Previously, this could take up a huge amount of a photographer (or their assistant’s) time. 

Silver particles deposited on the base metal with a low voltage had a larger grain. This large silver grain structure results in increased photo-sensitivity. Crucially, this allowed images to be made more quickly with less light, using shorter exposure times. This made portraiture easier and more reliable, especially when photographing young children and pets who were likely to move and cause a blurred image. 

Black-and-white daguerreotype photograph of a family group in a garden, taken around 1850.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Black-and-white daguerreotype photograph of a family group in a garden, taken around 1850.

A faster photographic plate and process?

George Shaw made daguerreotypes on magneto electro plate in the 1840s in Birmingham, which illustrate the qualities of the magneto silver plate material.

The images show Francis Marrian timing the exposure and freezing movement as he pours milk—something which would have been difficult using the slower exposure times demanded by conventional photographic materials at the time.

Marrian images

Click to expand the images:

George Shaw and the Marrian brothers

George Shaw was a lecturer in chemistry at Queens College, patent agent and later a juror at the Great Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862. He published manuals of electro-metallurgy in 1842 and in 1844, where he promoted Woolrich’s magneto plate.

Francis Marrian and his brother were steeped in the metal trades of Birmingham. Francis was a graduate from Joseph Vincent Barber’s drawing academy and a silver plater, while his brother Benjamin James Pratt (‘JP’) Marrian was a brass founder. In 1843 JP Marrian wrote to the inventor of the paper photographic process, William Henry Fox Talbot, asking for a license to operate as a portrait photographer and mentioning Woolrich’s magneto device as a ‘sensation.’ 

This large-scale daguerreotype portrait of George Shaw from our collection was probably made to test and expand upon the quality of the magneto-plate material.

Daguerreotype portrait of Shaw by leading daguerreotypist JJE Mayall.

The size of this image is very unusual for a daguerreotype. It is an important image which illustrates the ambition and technical advancement of both photography and Birmingham manufacturers in the 1840s. 

Photography today

By 1851, just two years after the portrait of Shaw was made, the wet plate collodion photographic process had begun to supersede the daguerreotype. Easily reproducible, sharply detailed images could now be made onto glass, rendering the use of silver plate in the daguerreotype process obsolete. 

Collodion positive photograph of an unknown statue group, possibly taken by JB Dancer at the Manchester Arts Treasures Exhibition in 1857
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Collodion positive photograph of an unknown statue group, possibly taken by JB Dancer at the Manchester Arts Treasures Exhibition in 1857

Later in the 20th century, the use of ASA, DiN and later ISO ratings standardised the sensitivity of photographic materials to light, and these are still in use on digital cameras today.

Unopened packet of Ilford hypersensitive panchromatic (HP3) plates.
Science Museum Group More information about Unopened packet of Ilford hypersensitive panchromatic (HP3) plates.

The example of daguerreotype production in Birmingham shows us how a small group of innovators, supported by industry, can improve technology in just a short amount of time. 

The daguerreotype itself might now be obsolete, but these technological advancements sped photography up—and it has never slowed down since.

Find out more

  • A Grant and A Patterson, The Museum and the Factory: The V&A, Elkington and the Electrical Revolution
  • R Derek Wood & Peter James, The Enigma of Monsieur de Sainte-Croix, History of Photography, 17:1, 1993, 101–114
  • J Spiller, Early experiments by Dr. Percy and Mr George Shaw on the Chemical Phenomena of Light, The Photographic Journal, March 21 1890, p.121–125
  • Talbot Correspondence, document number 4772, 20th March 1843. Benjamin James Pratt Marrian to William Henry Fox Talbot. Accessed online 3rd October 2022.
  • M Robinson, The Techniques and Material Aesthetics of the Daguerreotype, 2017
  • Parallax Photographic co-op guide to film speed.