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The first digital photos, from Victorian technology to the internet

Published: 24 April 2020

Today, we take digital photography for granted. It may feel like a very modern phenomenon—but the idea of sending pictures digitally was devised much earlier than you might think.

Digital pictures in the Victorian age

Head and shoulders portrait of suited man with a beard Science Museum Group Collection
Bidwell in the late 19th century

In 1880, Shelford Bidwell had a remarkable idea⁠—what if a picture could be broken into pure information and transmitted as an electronic signal? 

Shelford Bidwell was a researcher who specialised in selenium. He found that selenium did strange things when light shone on it. If a selenium cell was wired into a simple electrical circuit, with a battery that sent small electrical currents down a wire, it would cause greater or lesser resistance when reacting to direct light. 

This meant that Bidwell could generate electrical patterns.

When no light shone on the selenium cell, a surge of electricity wound its way around the circuit. When light did shine on it, the resistance increased and only a small current was present. By varying the light, he could generate a Morse code-like intermittent signal.

Bidwell thought this could be used to transmit visual information.

Sending images down a wire

To test his idea, Bidwell built two machines, a transmitter and a receiver. Then he painted two simple pictures—black and white silhouettes of a butterfly and a horse.

Black block with butterfly image Science Museum Group Collection
One of Bidwell's original images

Bidwell’s selenium-powered transmitting machine scanned each picture line by line. When it scanned over a transparent part, light was let through to the selenium photocell, which reacted and generated an electrical signal. When it scanned an opaque part, the light was interrupted and no signal was generated.

This created a stop-start intermittent electric current much like a telegraph signal. And much like a telegraph signal, it travelled down a telegraph wire to another machine. This was Bidwell’s receiving machine, which reversed the process and rebuilt the image line by line.

A new image was printed by chemical reaction. A piece of paper had been soaked in potassium and the electrical signal reacted with this to burn a butterfly into the paper. Bidwell had used electricity to make an exact replica of his original picture.

Wooden and metal apparatus Science Museum Group Collection
Bidwell's telephotography apparatus, with the transmitter on the left and receiver on the right

This was pretty amazing. Bidwell had built a telegraph for pictures. He called this new process ‘telephotography’ and hoped that it could be refined to manage half-tone printed pictures, and eventually photographs. 

Bidwell’s idea was an impressive leap. His machines could break pictures up into electrical pulses, fire them down a wire and rebuild them at the other end. He had transformed an image into digital information and found a way to transfer it to another person in another place.

But the machine didn’t really take off, and it would be many decades before digital pictures became a viable reality.

Shelford Bidwell's model apparatus for transmitting pictures by telegraph (phototelegraphy).
Science Museum Group More information
Scanned print of an image of a horse on sensitised paper, made by Shelford Bidwell using his apparatus for transmitting pictures by telegraph.
Science Museum Group More information

Digital photography before the internet

After Bidwell but long before the internet, researchers and visionaries continued attempting to make pictures out of pure information.

In the early 20th century there were all kinds of ‘electrographic photography’ experiments and other attempts at making pictures that could be transmitted by electricity.

Then in 1957, Russell Kirsch converted a photograph of his three-month-old son into a tiny digital file using an early computer. This was created by scanning an analogue photograph.

Baby's face Russell A. Kirsch / Public domain Image source
Digital image of Russell Kirsch’s son Walden, created by scanning an analogue photograph, 1957

But other researchers and inventors were building machines that could take original images.

Peter Noble built a sensor that could convert light into digital information in 1968. This was called an Active Pixel Sensor, a photodetector that registered how light fell across it and converted this into digital information.

Noble’s sensor could create a digital image from life, without the need for any analogue intermediary images. 

By 1973 Steve Sasson, a researcher in the Kodak laboratories, had built upon this idea to create a fully digital camera that could capture and store electronic photographs.

He had planned to build the first handheld digital camera, but ended up with a heavy machine about the size of a toaster. It took tiny (0.8 megapixel) black and white digital photographs that were saved onto a cassette.

Woman sits next to early digital image sensor Science Museum Group Collection
Photography of one of Peter Noble’s experiments with the active pixel sensor, which captured a digital image from life

The first photo on the World Wide Web

At the heart of Bidwell’s original idea was the sharing of images, quickly, with others in different places—not simply creating them. 

This action is now a fundamental part of our everyday lives, as we snap and send photos via the internet on our smartphones many times a day. And there’s one more surprising first that helps explain how this became possible.

In a suburb on the edge of Geneva is the vast laboratory complex of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 

One night in July 1992, there was a performance by a band called Les Horribles Cernettes, made up of CERN staff Angela Higney, Michele de Gennaro, Colette Marx-Neilsen, and Lynn Veronneau. The band described themselves as the world’s greatest high-energy rock band, despite mostly playing comedy 1950s doo-wop.

Just before they headed onstage the band posed for a quick photograph, taken by Silvano de Gennaro, a computer physicist and the band’s ‘manager’. This was a normal analogue photograph, taken on film—it was 1992, after all.

But Gennaro had been playing with computer image processing. He scanned the photo and saved it to his colour Macintosh as a .gif file. Using a new editing programme called Photoshop (version one), he cut the band away from their background and made this low-quality promo picture on a baby blue background.

Four women in ballgowns against a blue background ITU Pictures (CC BY 2.0) Image source
The band's promotional image

When Tim Berners-Lee walked into Gennaro’s office one day and saw him playing with the little digital photograph, Berners-Lee laughed and suggested that he make a ‘website’ for the band on a little-known computer network called the World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee made a webpage to advertise events taking place at CERN and uploaded Gennaro’s picture of the band. The image was tiny—only around 120 pixels by 50 pixels—because the early web would have struggled with larger images. It was about the size of a stamp. 

No celebrations were planned, but this moment would later become very important indeed. Though the web already had some graphs and diagrams, this little picture was the first photograph to be uploaded.

Berners-Lee was beginning to experiment with the social communication functions of the Web across the CERN site. Naturally, as staff started to talk to one another via the Web, their conversations drifted from work and it increasingly became a place of social interaction. The Cernettes picture was at the very forefront of this tiny revolution. 

The impact of early digital photographs

The first photographs were made by the actions of light on various chemicals, which registered its intensity and left visible markings on a sheet of paper, or glass, or metal. Photography is a natural chemical reaction. It was discovered, so to speak. 

But a digital photograph is something else entirely. A digital image is made of binary information—a set of instructions that tell our computers how to deconstruct and reassemble it. For a digital image to exist, people like Shelford Bidwell had to work out how to convert pictures into electronic pulses that could be transmitted, stored and rebuilt.

And even before this, he had to dream up that an electronic image was even possible. It was a huge intellectual leap.

Next time you grab your phone to snap a picture and send it to someone, think how incredible it is that it’s not just possible, but a totally everyday action—and one first thought of over a century ago.