Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wedgwood, Thomas
WEDGWOOD, THOMAS (1771–1805), the first photographer, born at Etruria Hall, Staffordshire, on 14 May 1771, was the third surviving son of Josiah Wedgwood [q.v.] He was educated almost entirely at home, but spent a few terms at Edinburgh University between 1787 and 1789. For a very short while he worked energetically at the potteries, but was soon compelled by bad health to lead a wandering life in vain search of cure.
The name of Thomas Wedgwood is chiefly remembered in connection with photography. It had long been known that nitrate and chloride of silver are affected by light under certain conditions, but the idea of making practical use of this property does not seem to have occurred to any one before it occurred to Wedgwood. In the 'Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain' for 1802 we find 'An Account of a Method of copying Paintings upon Glass, and of making Profiles by the agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver, invented by T. Wedgwood, esq., with Observations by H. Davy' [see Davy, Sir Humphry]. Wedgwood showed that a copy or a silhouette of any object could be obtained, when its shadow was thrown on a piece of white paper or leather which had been sensitised by being moistened with nitrate of silver. In a similar manner a silhouette of a picture painted on glass could be obtained by placing the glass in the light of the sun upon the sensitised surface. The 'primary end' of his experiments was to obtain photographs in a camera obscura, but in this endeavour he was unsuccessful, as no effect could be obtained 'in any moderate time.' Moreover he failed to discover any method of fixing his picture, and the copies made had to be kept in the dark. Miss Meteyard tries to connect the Daguerre, whose name is known in connection with the Daguerrotype, with a certain Daguerre with whom Josiah Wedgwood had business dealings, and in this way to trace back the origin of these early French photographic inventions to Thomas Wedgwood; but it is probable that there is no justification whatever for these surmises. Although Wedgwood failed to discover a practical photographic process, to him appears to be due the credit of first conceiving and publishing the idea of utilising the chemical action of light for the purpose of making pictures, either by contact or in the camera, and of taking the first steps towards the realisation of his project [see Talbot, William Henry Fox].
On his father's death in 1795 Wedgwood inherited a considerable property, and spent much of his fortune in aiding men of genius. When in 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a candidate for the pastoral charge of the unitarian chapel at Shrewsbury, in order to enable him to devote himself entirely to philosophy and poetry Wedgwood and his brother offered him an annuity of 150l. a year, the value of the emolument, the prospect of which he abandoned by accepting this offer. Thomas Wedgwood's half of the annuity was secured legally to Coleridge for life. Sir John Leslie [q.v.], whose acquaintance he made at Edinburgh, was also assisted in a similar manner. During the alarm of invasion in 1803 and 1804 he equipped at his own expense a corps of volunteers raised in the country round Ulleswater. They were known as the 'Loyal Wedgwood Volunteers.' The last eight or nine years of Wedgwood's short life were an incessant struggle with disease. He died at Eastbury, Dorset, on 10 July 1805.
Perhaps the most striking tribute to Wedgwood is that of Sydney Smith when he said that he knew 'no man who appears to have made such an impression on his friends,' and his friends included many of the leading men of intellect of the day. He gave Wordsworth 'an impression of sublimity.' Thomas Campbell speaks of him as a 'strange and wonderful being … full of goodness, benevolence … a man of wonderful talents, a tact of taste acute beyond description.' His opinions were to Sir Humphry Davy as 'a secret treasure,' and often, he said, enabled him to think rightly when perhaps otherwise he would have thought wrongly. Thomas Poole wrote of Wedgwood that he 'was a man who mixed sublime and comprehensive views of general systems with an acuteness of search into the minutioe of the details of each beyond any person he ever met with.'
As to Coleridge's praises we may perhaps be tempted to discount them, though he declared, evidently alluding to the annuity, that Wedgwood was not 'less the benefactor of his intellect.' It is, however, to be regretted that the 'full portrait of his friend's mind and character,' written by Coleridge, is lost, and also that Sir James Mackintosh never carried out his intention of publishing Wedgwood's speculations, and at the same time of showing 'how bright a philosophical genius went out when the life of that feeble body was extinguished.'
Wedgwood's only writings are two papers on the 'Production of Light from different Bodies by Heat and by Attrition,' read before the Royal Society in 1791 and 1792, in which we find the earliest suggestion of the general law, since established, that all bodies become red hot at the same temperature. They are remarkable as indicating a considerable power of research when he was only twenty years of age.
[Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. 1792; Meteyard's Group of Englishmen; Meteyard's Life of Josiah Wedgwood; Campbell's Life of 8. T. Coleridge; Sandford's Thomas Poole and his Friends; Paris's Life of Davy; Beattie'a Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell; Coleridge's Friend, 1850, i. 190; information kindly given by R. B. Litchfield, esq.]