Born in the Slovakian village of Spisska-Biela on January 6, 1807, Joseph (Josef) Max Petzval majored in engineering at the University of Budapest, where he was named professor of mathematics in 1835. At the age of 30, Mr. Petzval became a mathematics professor at the University of Vienna, and lived in Vienna for the remainder of his life.
His mathematical background combined with a fascination with optics led Mr. Petzval to make calculations for photographic lenses. Unfortunately, however, the glass qualities that existed at the time rendered his calculations impossible, much to his considerable frustration. Nevertheless, he continued his optical research on the "Wollaston-Chevalier" lenses that were used with most daguerreotype cameras. This lens left a lot to be desired with its f/17 aperture, and so Mr. Petzval sought to make a lens with a considerably larger aperture. With the help of several aides supplied by the archduke Ludwig to assist with the necessary calculations, Mr. Petzval was able to design an impressive portrait lens in 1840 that had an aperture of f/3.6, which made it 16 times better than the "Wollaston-Chevalier". This lens reduced exposure time to 15-30 seconds using iodine-bromine and iodine-bromine-chlorine plates.
Voigtlander manufactured the Petzval lens, but a disagreement brought an acrimonious end to this partnership in 1845. By this time, several manufacturers were releasing imitations of the Petzval portrait lens because the radius of the curvature remained a heavily guarded secret. However, nothing could surpass the quality of the original lens, which enjoyed unparalleled popularity for the next fifty years.
For several years, Mr. Petzval worked diligently to develop a landscape lens that would have a smaller aperture and an image field that was larger and sharper than the portrait lens, making it more suitable for landscape or architectural photography. The landscape lens was finally marketed in in 1857 with the name "Photographischer Dialyt". Shortly thereafter, Voigtlander manufactured an identical lens with the name "Voigtlander Orthoskop", thus igniting a contentious battle as to the rights of ownership. Mr. Petzval would receive no monetary compensation for the Voigtlander lenses, and began working exclusively with optician Carl Dietzler. Unfortunately, Mr. Dietzler's company went bankrupt, forcing Mr. Petzval to continue on his own, with little financial success. His business difficulties were compounded by an 1859 robbery, which resulted in the destruction of Mr. Petzval's manuscript on optical theory that had taken him several years to complete.
Due to the loss of his mnuscripts, he abandoned his research and lectures on optics altogether and focused on string acoustics. In 1869, the 62-year-old Mr. Petzval married his housekeeper, but she died four years later. Mr. Petzval retired from the University of Vienna, and lived as a virtual recluse until his death on September 19, 1891. Sadly, he died feeling unappreciated for his optical innovations, but his basic design principles are still being applied to the photographic lenses of the twenty-first century. Today, there is a Joseph Petzval Museum of the History of Photography and Cinematography in his hometown, streets and monuments in Austria and Hungary that bear his name, a lunar crater is named for him, and since 1928, the Austrian Board of Education has awarded the Petzval Medal to special accomplishments in the field of scientific photography.
1887 Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, Vol. XVIII (New York: E. & H. T. Anthony & Co.), pp. 151-153.
2008 The Concise Focal Encyclopedia of Photography (Burlington, MA: Focal Press/Elsevier), p. 28.
1989 A History of the Photographic Lens (San Diego: Academic Press), p. 263.
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