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Gabriel Lippmann

Physicist and color photography pioneer Gabriel Lippmann was born in Hollerich, Luxembourg on August 16, 1845. He was educated at Paris' Ecole Normale Superieure and in Heidelberg, Germany. While studying in Heidelberg, he observed an experiment involving a drop of mercury that was treated with sulfuric acid and then placed into contact with an iron wire. This led to his invention of the capillary electrometer in 1872, which was the first instrument that recorded the human heart. In 1878, he became Maitre de conferences at the Sorbonne, and five years' later, he was named Professor of Experimental Physics, a position he held for the rest of his life.

He began conducting random studies in color photography in 1881, and after marrying the daughter of author and French Academy member Victor Cherbuliez in 1888, he resumed his experiments. Instead of using color pigments, Professor Lippmann instead utilized the natural colors of light. Spreading a finely grained emulsion containing colloidal silver bromide onto a flat glass sheet, he applied a mercury layer, which reflected waves of light through the emulsion. These light waves formed standing waves, which allowed the formation of a latent image with a depth that was determined by each wave’s color (or wavelength). After the image was developed and this image could be viewed in the reflected light, the colors present in the original scene are heightened by the image reflections that were recorded during the emulsion process.

After several tests from 1891 to 1892, he presented his theory to the Academy of Sciences, along with photographs taken by Auguste and Louis Lumiere that featured his colorization technique. This earned Professor Lippmann the title 'father of color photography', which was not without its detractors. For example, French physicist Henri Becquerel argued that he had produced the same effects with the use of daguerreotype plates in 1848. Professor Lippmann, of course, disagreed, and the Nobel committee obviously sided with him, awarding him a Nobel Prize for Physics for his development of natural color photography in 1908.

In later years, Professor Lippman served as the President of the Academy of Sciences in 1912, was a member of the Board of the Bureau des Longitudes and also served as a member of London's Royal Society. While on an expedition led by Emile Fayolle, Marshal of France, Gabriel Lippmann died at sea on July 13, 1921 at the age of 75. Despite the controversy that remains over who actually discovered color photography, it cannot be disputed that Professor Lippmann was the first to formally present his scientific findings and share them with the world.

1991 The Daguerreotype (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution), p. 103.

1990 A History of Electrocardiography (San Francisco: Norman Publishing), pp. 72-73.

2004 Nobel Laureates and Twentieth-Century Physics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), p. 70.

1998 Nobel Lectures, Physics, 1901-1921 (River Edge, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Co.), pp. 189-190.

1996 Physics: For Scientists and Engineers (London: Jones and Bartlett Publishers International), p. 998.

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