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Who First Used the Word Photography?

Sir John F. W. Herschel is usually credited with the first use of the word photography. In any event he popularized this word in his address to the Royal Society in March 1839. Herschel did not invent photography, but he made many important contributions to improving the photographic process. In particular, he discovered a way to stabilize or “fix” silver images. He was reporting on his work when he introduced the word photography.

There is some controversy about whether Herschel should get credit for the name photography. I know of two other claims. The artist, Hercules Florence, working in Brazil in 1833 with sensitized paper to copy drawings probably used the French word fotografia. However, he did not report his work and usually gets little credit.

Some astronomers claim that the German astronomer, Johann Heinrich von Mädler, coined the word photographie and published it in an article in the Vossische Zeitung on Feb. 25, 1839. I have not been able to verify this, but the claim was repeated in the January, 2013, issue of the APS Newsletter of the American Physical Society.

I happen to think that claims and counter claims for the first use of photography are not very important. Certainly discoveries and inventions are important, but the names that are associated with them later are often historical accidents. Here are some examples. Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 for "his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect." Photoelectric effect occurs when light causes metals to emit electrons. In modern terminology Einstein argued that particles of light, or photons, of are absorbed by electrons and may impart enough energy to liberate the electron. Photons are associated with Einstein’s discovery; but, in fact, he did not use the term. Most scientists are surprised to learn that the word photon was first used by the famous chemist, G. N. Lewis.

A more recent example involves the term MRI or magnetic resonance imaging. The inventor of MRI, Paul Lauterbur, called his method Zeugmatography. That is not an easy word to remember or spell, at least for English speakers, and the magnetic resonance community quickly began referring to the technique as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI). When NMRI became important in medicine, it and became the domain of radiologists was referred to as MRI rather than NMRI. Probably MRI was preferred because Nuclear Medicine in another medical specialty.

The final example is from my own work. In the 1990’s I developed a technique that would make 2-dimensional displays of data about both the identity of molecules and their sizes by means of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Acronyms are popular in this field, and I chose DOSY to signify diffusion ordered spectroscopy. DOSY caught on probably because it is easy to remember and it fits in with other acronyms in the field, e.g. COSY and NOESY. In fact, it caught on too well because chemists often used it to refer to other diffusion techniques that predated DOSY to the chagrin of their developers.


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