Courtesy of Harry Ransom Center, U of Texas at Austin

There are many milestones on the road to modern science, but few equal the summer afternoon in 1826 when French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce (1765–1833) captured the first permanent image. Niepce, a tinkerer and amateur scientist, set out to automate the lithography process in 1812. Experiments with various acids and other substances failed. Still tinkering 15 years later, he set up a pewter plate layered with photosensitive bitumen of Judea on his attic window facing a courtyard. Eight hours later, he took the plate out and rinsed it in lavender oil and petroleum, which sharpened the contrast. The result was the first photograph.

For the remainder of his life, Niepce lost most of his money trying to commercialize the device. But he ultimately won, because photography became one of the building blocks of modern science, allowing researchers to share realistic...

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