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January 26, 2021

The Story Behind the World’s First Underwater Photograph Taken by William Thompson in 1856

In 1856, William Thompson took the world’s first underwater photo in the Bay of Weymouth in Dorset, UK. The camera inside a housing made of wood and iron was mounted on a tripod that was lowered to a depth of 5.5 m (18 ft) by means of a rope.

First underwater photograph taken on a wet colloidion plate in 1856 by William Thompson.

Thompson got the idea while watching a wave-battered bridge from a public house. He used the collodion process to take the single photo. Total exposure time was 10 minutes during which the camera flooded. The plate was removed and rinsed in freshwater but it still produced a weak underwater photo of the bay.

Although the image was by no means a masterpiece, it was nonetheless a technical success. The world’s first underwater photo was also the first half & half image (split shot, over-under). No other attempts were made until Frenchman Louis Boutan’s experiments in 1893.

With Thompson, to think was to act. He already owned a camera which he was in the habit of using in conjunction with his natural history studies. A carpenter now made him a wooden box large enough to contain the camera. The front of the box was made of plate glass and on the outside of the front there was a heavily weighted shutter, hinged at the top, that could be raised by a long string attached to it. Thumbscrews secured the back of the box so that when the camera had been placed in it, it could be made (Thompson hoped) reasonably watertight. The box was fitted on an iron tripod and provided with a rope for lowering it into the sea and pulling it up again.

So far, so good. The box was ready. The next problem concerned the camera itself. Thompson's camera took a plate measuring 5 inches by 4 inches, which he prepared using the collodion process. This meant that the liquid chemical had to be poured on to the plate, and be exposed and developed all within a matter of an hour or so. Following the procedure usual at the time, Thompson set up a small tent, on Weymouth beach, and inside it prepared a plate and put it in his camera. He then, under cover of a black cloth, placed the camera in the box, making sure that its lens was against the plate glass, and screwed on the back.

The next step was to lower the box into the sea. For the site of his experiment Thompson chose what he described as “a nook in the bay of Weymouth which is bounded by a ridge of rocks (where the area within is of sand and boulders and thickly clothed with many species of seaweeds.”

Thompson and his friend Kenyon, having rowed out a sufficient distance from the beach, lowered the box into 18 feet of water. When he was sure that the apparatus was standing upright on the bottom, he pulled the string that raised the hinged shutter. Thompson made two attempts that day. For the first he allowed an exposure time of five minutes but found that the plate having been developed registered nothing.

For his second attempt he doubled the exposure time. Although by then the light had deteriorated, he obtained a reasonable satisfactory negative, from which he made a print on which it was possible faintly to discern the outlines of boulders and seaweed. Water had leaked into the camera but this, Thompson was pleased to see, had not seriously affected the quality of the picture. He also noted with surprise that the image had not been inverted, and came to the conclusion that the thick plate glass in front of the lens must have acted as a reversing mirror.

Thompson later designed a better apparatus, but he then lost interest and pursued the matter no further. His friend William Penney of Poole, who was a chemist, and a naturalist of some note, persuaded him to send an account of his experiment to be printed in the Journal of the Society of Arts, otherwise there would probably have been no record of it in existence today.

Although Thompson often used his camera to take still life photographs of fishes and other marine subjects that he had dredged from the bay, he thought of underwater photography only as a useful aid in underwater engineering. It is clear that he never imagined a time when future generations might be able to use a similar process to take photographs of marine life in situ. Yet some of the finest examples of underwater photographs have been taken in recent years along the Dorset coast within a few miles of the spot where, in 1856, Thompson lowered his camera into the water in a nook in Weymouth Bay.





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