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Category: History

Did you know the first “photograph” was made during the late “extended” Regency period? Its inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, is the second of my “real Regency heroes” to hail from France rather than England. My justification is that scientists who studied and experimented with technological advances at this time worked and shared on both sides of the channel.


Niépce developed other innovations as well, but according to correspondence with his brother, he captured the first permanent live camera image in 1824. This first effort was lost in further experimentation. But in 1826, Niépce created the same image again—a view out of the window from his studio—and this image still survives today, the world’s first (if rather indistinct) photograph. 


Buckle in for a story that shows how luck and timing and good PR, or the lack of them, make a huge difference in scientific success.

Born in 1765, Niépce was the second son of a wealthy lawyer. He and his older brother Claude excelled in studying science and after graduating Niépce became a professor at the Catholic Oratory college where he studied in Angers. The order’s colleges were shut down in 1792 by the Legislative Assembly of France’s New Republic, and some teachers became active supporters of the revolution. Niépce briefly joined the army under Napoleon and served as a staff officer in Italy and Sardinia until ill-health forced him to resign and accept a position as the Administrator of the district of Nice. He also married at this time.

 In 1795 at the age of 30, Niépce left that position in order to pursue his scientific interests, partnered with his brother Claude. They researched ideas for an internal combustion engine, living in Nice until they returned to their family estate in Chalon in 1801. Reunited with other family members, they lived there as gentlemen farmers while exploring a variety of scientific interests. In 1806 they presented a paper to the Institute National de Science, the French National Commission of the Academy of Science, which explained the workings of their engine, which they called a Pyréolophore.

A color cut-away diagram showing the internal combustion engine invented by Niepce and his brother.

Diagram of the first internal combustion engine, the Pyreolophore, of 1806. (public domain)

In 1807 they built a working version of their engine and demonstrated its success by powering a boat up the River Saone. They received a ten-year patent from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Unfortunately, in the same year Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz also built an internal combustion engine. The de Rivaz engine was hydrogen-powered, whereas the Niépce engine ran on various experimental fuels such as mixtures of Lycopodium powder (the spores of clubmoss) and coal dust, or resin, all of which proved expensive.

France under Napoleon was at war for nearly all of the years of the Niépce patent. During those years, the brothers also developed a hydraulic pumping machine (but too late to obtain the government contract they aimed for) and the first fuel injection engine. But they were not able to attract sufficient investments or subsidies for their Pyreolophore, so their engine patent expired in 1817.

Unwilling to release the project, brother Claude traveled to England and settled at Kew. He obtained a patent consent from the British Crown in December of 1817, but for the next ten years he pursued many ill-advised and unsound schemes to promote the engine. He was said to have “developed delirium” (probably some form of dementia) and squandered most of the family fortune.

Meanwhile, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce had already turned to new interests, among them building a velocipede (early bicycle) that he rode around Chalon. Starting around 1816, another interest was combining the process of lithography, invented in 1798, with the idea of capturing photographic images using a camera obscura. Today the process he invented is known as photo-lithography.

The problem with camera obscura images, long used as an aid to artists, was that no one had found a way to capture them in a permanent form other than drawing them. Dissatisfied with the results obtained with silver oxide-coated paper, Niépce turned to bitumen, used on the copper plates for making engravings. He developed a process he called heliography, which allowed him to copy existing engravings by laying them in the sun on a lithographic stone or a sheet of metal or glass that had been thinly coated with bitumen dissolved in lavender oil, leaving a reproducible impression on the plate.

Attempting to capture a camera image on such a plate was not a huge leap. Niépce set up a camera obscura in the window of his studio and in his first try, projected the image onto bitumen-coated stone. His second version was projected onto bitumen-coated pewter, and that is the image that survives to this day. At one time the exposure time was thought to have been eight hours but further recent research has shown in fact the exposure took several days, which is why the sunlight in the image does not come from only one direction!

Enhanced image of the buildings, light and shadows captured in Niepce’s original photograph.

Niépce traveled to England to see his seriously-ill brother late in 1826. While he was at Kew, he met botanical illustrator Francis Bauer and showed him the heliography prints and the photograph. Bauer encouraged him to share his discoveries with the Royal Society. However, the paper Niépce presented to the Society was rejected because he was too reluctant to divulge the details of his work.

Niépce left his samples and his paper with Bauer and returned to France, where he partnered in 1829 with Louis Daugerre, who was also investigating ways to capture camera images. But Niépce died suddenly of a stroke in 1833, so impoverished that the French government paid for his burial. When Daugerre presented his own process, the “daugerreotype” to the world in 1839, he claimed the recognition as the inventor of photography, over the protests of Niépce’s son. Bauer managed to have Niépce’s work exhibited at the Royal Society, but nonetheless Niépce was mostly forgotten until the modern age.

In 1952, a pair of photography historians, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, managed to track down what had become of Niépce’s photograph and acquired it. Their collection was purchased in 1963 by the University of Texas. Niépce’s reputation has finally been restored, and his original first photograph can be seen today on display at the university’s Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Did you have any idea that photography had such an early beginning?

(all images used with this post are public domain)


This was first posted on April 1, 2013, but it is just as relevant today even though it is April 3.


What is the origin of April Fools Day?


No one knows for sure, but it is speculated that it came about when the French calendar was reformed in the sixteenth century, moving the start of the year from March to January 1. (I blogged about calendar changes just this past January)


Some people who clung to the old calendar and continued to celebrate the New Year from March 25 to April 1, had tricks played on them. The pranksters would stick paper fish on their backs. Thus they were called Poisson d’Avril, ‘April Fish,’ the name the French call April Fools even today.


April fools jokes have continued through the years. Near “ou r” time period a clever one was pulled off.



In 1860 a postcard was sent to several people admitting two to the Tower of London to view the annual ceremony of washing the White Lions on April 1. The invitees were instructed that they would be admitted only at the White Gate.


On April 1, several cabs were driving around Tower Hill looking for the White Gate—which, of course, didn’t exist.


April Fool!!


What was the best April Fools joke you played on someone or one someone played on you?


Did you know that January 1 wasn’t always January 1? The grandparents and parents of our Regency heroes and heroines would have known a year when January 1 followed March 24. What’s more, that year they would lose a whole eleven days that September.

Until 1752 Britain and the British Empire, including the American colonies, still followed the Julian Calendar, established in the time of Julius Caesar, which made the year 365 days long and used leap years, but the calendar had an error that made the Spring equinox drift from its date of March 21. Two hundred years earlier, though, astronomers convinced Pope Gregory to change to a calendar based on the  solar calendar that kept the equinox on March 21, important, because that was how they calculated when Easter would be.

Most of the Catholic countries adopted this Gregorian calendar in the 1500s, but Britain refused to switch to that “papist” system. You can imagine how confusing using two different calendars could be to travelers and traders.

And how disruptive changing the calendar would be to birthdays, festival days, paydays, dated contracts–any number of things.

In 1752 in Britain, March 25 became January 1, the start of a new year. But more adjustment was necessary to bring things in line with the Gregorian calendar, so Wednesday September 2, 1752, was followed by Thursday September 14, 1752, “losing” eleven days.

In 1752 William Willett of Endon bet that he could dance non-stop for twelve days. He started dancing on September 2, danced all night and stopped the next day–Sept 14. Twelve days! He won the bet.

The Whigs, who were more progressive and were convinced by the science of why the change was needed, supported the change. The conservative Tories were opposed and protested under the slogan, “Give Us Our Eleven Days.”

In 1755 Hogarth released a satirical print called An Election Entertainment depicting a tavern scene with some bawdy Whigs celebrating while Tories outside protested, “Give us our eleven days.” Apparently, though, citizens did not really riot in the streets believing they’d lost eleven days, as many believe. Hogarth’s print is thought to have contributed to this idea. 

If you’d like to learn more about the differences in the Gregorian and Julian calendars, here’s the Wikipedia link.

Recently, an article about whether or not Mr. Darcy’s fortune was based on slavery set my Twitter feed alight. And I thought, well of course it was (in one form or another). This is the dark side of our wealthy, aristocratic characters that romance sweeps under the rug. It is certainly possible that the Darcy family fortune was based entirely on the profits of the mines in Derbyshire (harsh as those conditions might have been, they were NOT akin to slavery), but it’s much more likely that those profits were then put to use in ways that almost certainly have ties to slavery.hip0210043WHH%20v2

How so, let us tally up the ways …

1) Directly. Many families owned plantations in the West Indies (see this fascinating account of how the Earls of Harewood built their fortune on slavery, the products there of, and the overseeing of same).

2) Being paid off. When slavery was abolished in 1833, the British government spent a staggering amount of money to compensate the owners of slaves for their losses (good article about that here). Some families got the equivalent of millions of dollars. There were over three thousand claims, which lets you know how widespread slavery was and what its impact must have been on the fortunes of the top families.

3) Via investments. People invested in specific ships and ventures (sometimes called consortiums or syndicates). Many of those would have been involved in producing or importing some kind of product that was produced by slaves in either America, the West Indies, or India (sugar, rum, cotton, opium, tea, rice, etc.).

4) The East India Company. It’s worth noting that when Britain abolished slavery, supposedly throughout its empire, it made an exception for slavery in India. So all those fortunes made in India by younger sons, all those tea plantations, and cotton farms, and military careers, existed because of slavery (good summation on Wikipedia).

I’m sure Janet would have even more insightful things to say on this topic, but I wanted to bring it up for discussion given the timeliness of the article. I know romance is generally seen as escapist, and I don’t want to ruin that for anyone, but I do think it does history a disservice to gloss over these sorts of things to the point where they no longer seem to exist.

So what do you all think? Do you want to topics like this addressed in romances, or do you think it makes it too hard to enjoy the HEA and heavy topics are best left to those writing straight historical fiction?


75As is often the case, today’s post is brought to you courtesy of Twitter. After the first episode of Wolf Hall aired, there was a raging debate about the colors used in the costumes. I think the main thing that set people off was Henry’s brocade doublet and his bright red schaub coat (how sad is that I only know the German name for that garment, because I’ve spent all my time in that period studying Landsknecht costuming?).

Several people said they were simply too bright, too vivid, etc. to be historically accurate. They landed particularly on the reds as being impossible to achieve in that era (and then purple got brought up, which I’ll tackle next time I post). When I was done scraping my jaw off the floor, the tweets were fast and furious.

madderTo put it in a nutshell: YOU DO NOT NEED ANILINE DYES TO GET DEEP, BRIGHT, INTENSE COLORS! (and anyone who’s ever looked at extant textiles should know this)

Let’s outline the dye options open to Henry VIII (c. 1525, when he was trying to divorce Catherine):

First and foremost, there was madder root. Madder was cheap and plentiful. It produces decent reds, but is probably not what is being used to produce fancy brocades for the KiWall Hanging 16thCng of England. Top left you can see Dharma Trading’s madder root swatches, and as you can see, madder is pretty vivid on silk (and would be so on wool).

The next option is kermes, a red dye made from the body of a Mediterranean insect. It was used    throughout Europe and was a highly desirable (and very expensive) dye stuff. If you had money, fabrics made with kermes dyes were readily available. They were widely in use by the Church and by the nobility (and the wealthy in general; we know they were widely cochinealavailable, because they had sumptuary laws about red in some places). The detail of a 16thC wall hanging to the right is most likely dyed with kermes.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, you also have Mexican cochineal (first shipment in 1523, so it’s entirely possible that fabrics made with cochineal would have already joined those made with kermes on the open market). Bottom left you have Dharma Trading’s cochineal swatches, which on my compter are trending a little more purplish than they do in real life.

So, while I may have quibbles with the costuming on Wolf Hall (none of Anne’s gowns fit properly which I think is due to the fabric choices being too light for those style gowns; why are some of the men running around in jerkins with no doublets?!), I don’t have any qualms about the color of Henry’s brocade doublet or his overcoat.

For more examples of naturally dyed red clothing, see my post from last year about red Georgian era gowns.

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