Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

C. Laguiche.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca 1795.
Ink and watercolor.

The Niépce family home, Le Gras, in Burgundy, in the village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes near Chalon-sur-Saône.

Alphonse Davanne. Nicéphore Niepce, Inventeur de la Photographie. Paris, 1885. Frontispiece and Title Page.

Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. “Re-Discovery of the World’s First Photograph.” The Photographic Journal, May 1952.

Born in 1765 in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. After careers teaching and serving in the military, he returned home in 1801 to manage his family estate, Le Gras. Niépce developed an interest in science when he began working with his brother, Claude, on various experiments and inventions.

As early as 1793, the brothers had discussed the possibility of using light to reproduce images. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's earliest experiments in this direction began in 1816. His progress was slow because photography was not his sole, or even his primary, interest. The invention on which the brothers expended most of their efforts, innovation, and money was a combustion engine called the "Pyreolophore" for propelling boats. This early internal combustion engine successfully propelled a model boat on local rivers, and the brothers spent the next 20 years improving and promoting the engine, resulting in Claude's eventual move to England.


When the craze for the newly invented art of lithography swept France in 1813, it attracted Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's attention. His trials with lithography led to what Niépce later termed heliography and resulted in the earliest known surviving photograph made in a camera, which he produced in 1826 or 1827.

In September 1827, Niépce traveled to England to visit his ailing brother. While there, he was introduced to the noted botanist, Francis Bauer, who recognized the importance of Niépce's discovery and encouraged Niépce to write about his invention. Bauer provided him with introductions to present his paper and heliographs to the Royal Society while he was in England. These specimens—which were all referred to by Niépce as "Les premiers resultats obtenus spontanement par l'action de la lumiere" (the first results obtained spontaneously by the action of light)—were rejected and returned to Niépce because he chose not to fully disclose his process.

Upon his return to Le Gras, Niépce continued his experiments. In 1829, he agreed to a ten-year partnership with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Niépce continued to experiment with heliography, dreaming of recognition and economic success, until his death in 1833. In 1839, Daguerre's photographic invention, the daguerreotype, became a commercial success, overshadowing Niépce's heliograph.