Who Invented The Camera? The Complete Truth

  • Although Johann Zahn is generally credited for inventing the camera, it was the culmination of work done by many individuals and private companies. 
  • Joseph Nicephore Niepce, Louis Daguerre, Alphonse Giroux, and George Eastman made significant contributions that led to the development of an advanced camera. 

The history of the camera goes back to the 11th century when Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham described the concept of optics in his books and various experiments that involved passing light through a small opening in a darkened room.

Ibn al-Haytham made significant contributions to the principle of optics and visual perception, which is why he is often referred to as ‘the father of modern optics’. He was the first to describe that the vision occurs in the brain, rather than in the eyes.

11th Century: Ibn al-Haytham Invented Pinhole Camera

Ibn al-Haytham is credited for the invention of the pinhole camera. He gave an accurate analysis of a phenomenon called Camera Obscura. It is the effect by which light shining through a small hole can show an image on the opposite surface.

A pinhole camera is a small dark box where light enters through a tiny hole and generates an inverted picture on the opposite surface. 

Ibn al-Haytham used a screen in a dark room so that the picture from one side of the surface’s hole could be projected onto a screen on the other side. He also explained the relationship between the pinhole and the focal point.

1685: Johann Zahn Designed The First Portable Camera

Johann Zhan proposed a hand-held instrument with a mirror-reflex mechanism, a design that would be later utilized to build photographic cameras.

He designed many portable camera obscurae and built one that was 48 centimeters long. He also demonstrated the use of lenses and mirrors to enlarge, focus, and erect the image.

Not much progress was made in the next 130 years. Most of the attempts and techniques to build cameras in between were ineffective.

1825: Joseph Nicephore Niepce Captured The First Photograph

Since 1816 the French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce had been experimenting with techniques to improve the image quality of a camera obscura. It wasn’t until the year 1825 when he clicked the first photo using a sliding wooden box camera.

The earliest surviving photoThe earliest surviving photo | View from the Niepce’s window 

The image he clicked shows the view from his window at Le Gras. The photo took nearly 8 hours to form on the paper. And since it was light-sensitive, it turned dark over time. Niepce called this 8-hour process “heliography“.

Generally, he is credited as the inventor of photography and a pioneer in that field.

1837: Louis Daguerre Invented Practical Photography

Louis Daguerre and Joseph Nicephore Niepce formed a partnership to enhance the heliography. They both experimented with various chemicals to refine the contrast in heliographs.

Although the partnership ended in 1833 (due to Niepce’s death), Daguerre was able to develop an extremely sharp and high-contrast image by exposing on a silver iodide-coated plate, and then exposing this plate to mercury vapor.

photo captured by DaguerreThe earliest-known photo of a person, captured by Daguerre in 1838. It’s a view of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. 

He continued experimenting and successfully fixed the photos with a common salt solution. This process was named Daguerreotype. In 1839, Daguerre went public with this invention, but he wasn’t able to successfully commercialize it. A few years later, the French government acquired the daguerreotype process for public release.

Today, Daguerre is recognized for inventing the daguerreotype process and known as one of the fathers of photography.

1839: Alphonse Giroux Built The First Commercially Manufactured Camera

Alphonse Giroux is known for constructing the first commercially manufactured daguerreotype camera. He made a deal with Louis Daguerre to build the cameras in France.

A daguerreotype camera | Image credit: Wikimedia

The camera featured a two-box design: the inner box was fitted with an image plate, and the outer box had a landscape lens. The inner box could be slid to focus on objects at varying distances.

After focusing the image on the screen, a sensitized plate was put on the screen. The shutter of the camera was a copper flap fixed in front of the lens, which was controlled by a knurled wheel.

These cameras used to take 5 to 30 minutes to capture a single photograph. Each device (with accessories) was priced at 400 francs.

Mid 19th Century

Soon after the daguerreotype camera came into the market, many companies started developing improved variations. For example, in 1841, Charles Chevalier utilized a half-sized plate to build a two-box camera. This increased the portability and brought down the exposures times to three minutes.

By 1851, Americans were using three forms of cameras: the Lewis-type camera, the Boston box, and the chamfered-box camera.

In the next three decades, more sensitive and superior quality imaging materials became available, which enabled camera devices to feature mechanical shutter mechanisms and capture images in seconds rather than in minutes.

Read: 11 Thomas Edison Inventions That Everyone Should Know

1889: George Eastman Brought Photographic Use of Roll Film Into The Mainstream

George Eastman was the pioneer of popular photography and motion pictures film. In 1885, he began manufacturing roll film, a form of spool-wound photographic film protected from white light exposure by a paper backing. Roll film played a crucial role in the invention of motion pictures film stock in 1888.

The original Kodak camera with the case, felt lens plug, and manual | Wikimedia

Eastman’s first camera, named Kodak, went for sale in 1888. It was a low-price box camera featuring a single shutter speed and fixed focus lens. Since the camera included enough film for up to one hundred exposures, it attracted a lot of customers.

Once the roll was finished, customers were required to send it back to The Eastman Kodak Company for processing and reloading. Within a decade, the company had expanded its lineup to different models, including folding and box cameras.

Brownie 2 

In the very early 19th century, Eastman released another inexpensive box camera named Brownie, introducing the concept of the snapshot to the masses.

1948: Edwin Herbert Land Invented “In-Camera Instant Photography”

Edwin Herbert Land was an American scientist who invented low-cost filters for polarizing light, a feasible system of in-camera instant photography. The invention made it possible for a photo to be taken and developed within a minute.

Model 20 SwingerModel 20 Swinger | Image credit: Wikimedia

By the 1960s, his company Polaroid Corporation manufactured dozens of models. One of those models was Model 20 Swinger (developed in 1965), which still remains one of the highest-selling cameras of all time.

Read: 25 Biggest Inventions in Computer Science

1975: Steven Sasson Invented The First Portable Digital Camera

Steven Sasson developed a self-contained digital camera while working at Eastman Kodak. It weighed 3.6 kilograms (8 pounds) and had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels. It could capture pictures in black and white, which was stored in a cassette tape. The overall process took 23 seconds.

With this invention, Sasson opened new avenues for cameras without mechanical moving parts (although his camera did have moving components, such as a tape drive).

From this point onwards, many companies (including Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Philips) were involved in developing advanced hardware and techniques for superior image quality. The progress made involved colored photography, higher resolution images, smaller devices, and more sensitive sensors. 

Read: Who Invented The Telephone? The Complete Truth

In 1999, Japanese electronics manufacturer Kyocera introduced the first commercial camera phone. It had a 0.1-megapixel front-facing camera and could store up to 20 JPEG photos. One year later, Samsung introduced the SCH-V200 phone with a 0.3-megapixel rear camera and an LCD display.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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