Photography is a matter of Taste: a lesson by Sir John Herschel

Discussion in 'B&W: Film, Paper, Chemistry' started by Michel Hardy-Vallée, Apr 15, 2011.

  1. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    There's nothing I hate more than lore.

    Lore is stuff that's well-known, but untraceable. Examples of photographic lore are "simple table salt can be used to clear fixer," or "John Herschel was the first to notice the fixating action of thiosulfates upon silver salts."

    But from every idiot with a blog on the internet, to the greatest minds of photographic writing, very few people ever bother to cite properly, and merely parrot. The problem is often that they never read the primary material to begin with.

    Well, I did my homework, and I finally traced the most important paper in the birth of photography: the discovery of fixer by John Herschel in his paper "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. (available from archive.org)

    The paper begins thus (my emphasis):

    This bitterness is the triggering factor: not being able to account for the sudden appearance of bitterness in a compound he already knew, Herschel sought to figure out what chemical transformations had happened in his solution, and how he could characterize it. After a quick trip to the library, our man found some clues as to the possible composition of his solution. His compound could not be "sulphuric" or "sulphurous" (the two forms of sulfur compounds he knew), and he found the excluded third in an experiment on the decomposition by atmospheric exposure of his original solution. "Hyposulphurous Acid" had been created in the solution, and while this acid is not available alone, it can readily be found attached to a base in the form of "hyposulphites". However, the literature already available was rather bad, vague, or incomplete with respect to the properties of these compounds.

    Thus began the quest to study the properties of "hyposulphites". In the paper, Herschel decribes their taste ("intensely sweet or intensely bitter"), what precipitates they form, etc. But must importantly, one notable property of all "hyposulphites" is their ability to dissolve "muriate of silver" or silver salts (not sure if he means strictly AgCl or all AgX, here).

    On page 19, the first clear mention of this property is thus given:
    I merely glanced over this part the first time I read the paper because I had no idea what "muriate" was. Although Herschel, in another paper, kept referring to this article as his discovery of hypo, I couldn't connect it with the birth of photography, and was looking for other papers, until an internet search finally helped me connect "muriate" with "halide" or "salts".

    Later in the paper, Herschel describes thus the impact of dissolved silver salts on hypo:
    There you have it: Herschel's test to know if your fixer is fresh or exhausted. Bitter = fresh ; sweet = exhausted. Easy!

    The 1819 paper makes no mention of photography, but it is well known that afterwards the word got out, and people like Talbot and Daguerre added 2+2: silver salts, reducing to silver after exposure to light, soluble in hypo = fixed photos!

    Thanks to printing, we have a record of the development of knowledge, and we can also witness that earlier scientists still used their bodies as fundamental measuring instruments. If you're into the study of smell, the Luca Turin saga on the vibrational nose also begins with the quest to figure out what two different chemical compounds smell like, even the toxic, dangerous ones (cf. The Emperor of Scent for a general public version and The Secret of Scent for the heavier version).

    In photography, we are indebted to a man's taste buds and their ability to transform all sorts of chemical information into subjective impressions, triggering a revolution with a lasting legacy.
     
  2. Photo Engineer

    Photo Engineer Subscriber

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    Muriatic Acid = HCl and therefore Silver Muriate or Muriate of Silver = AgCl using old terminology common in the days of Phlogiston. :D

    You can still buy Muriatic Acid at Hardware stores in the US.

    PE
     
  3. Ian C

    Ian C Member

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    Isn’t phlogiston an essential ingredient of pyro developers?
     
  4. nickrapak

    nickrapak Member

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    Does this mean I can use exhausted fixer as a zero-calorie sweetener? :D
     
  5. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

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    Great work Michel! You've done a service to the analog world by finding the original text and reproducing it here. Not many people know the excitement of finding original texts, but they should and easily could!
     
  6. Klainmeister

    Klainmeister Member

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    This should be moved to the article section!
     
  7. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    The first early text on photography I read was Talbot's The Pencil of Nature. It is truly remarkable, not just for its scope, but also for its form, alternating images with explanations, using a methodical, organized approach to all aspects of photography. In many respects, I find that all how-to books of photography that we have access to are merely recapitulating the fundamental concerns of Talbot's book. It's still available as a reprint, and I read it from a facsimile available at my university.

    If you read French, another good text to read is François Arago's report to the French Académie des Sciences on the daguerreotype.: http://mapage.noos.fr/paltman/daguerreotype.html

    I once bought it as a small letterpress book, and it's a joy to read. Like Talbot's book, this speech encompasses so many issues we have not yet escaped.

    Finally, there's another great Herschel article on photography, "On the Chemical Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Preparations of Silver and Other Substances, Both Metallic and Non-Metallic, and on Some Photographic Processes" published in issue 130 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1840), pp.1-59. It's about silver halides response to various part of the light spectrum (Arago's speech, cited above, references his pre-publication work on the matter), but the first part is also a recapitulation of Herschel's discoveries pertaining to photography, including his work on optics (1821 on aberrations of compound lenses, published by the Royal Society) and things like direct positives, bleaching/redeveloping, contact printing, glass plates, platinum printing, bromide v. iodide v. chloride salts, etc. It's where I got the lead to find Herschel's article on hypo, since he cites himself, but incorrectly (1821 instead of 1819!).

    That article is available directly from the Royal Society: http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing....html?sid=79d8c54c-f3a7-4190-91bd-2d04485dfcc6 but you need either a subscription or a university access to read it for free.

    Thanks for all the kind words. When knowledge is so readily available as it is nowadays, there are no excuses for being lazy!
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 15, 2011
  8. Photo Engineer

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    Many early chemists described the taste of every new compound that they made, and there was quite a "dictionary" of types of flavors. I used to enjoy reading some of them, especially the German articles in Berichte and Beilstein trying to figure out the flavors that they were describing.

    Some of those chemists died early, I have been told, but some lived to ripe old ages.

    Unfortunately, you can use old hypo as no-cal sweetener, but only once. You probably would not survive. (just kidding but it will make you very ill, especially those containing Ammonia - enough could kill)

    PE
     
  9. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

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    Hmm... can we use ants to test our fixer? :laugh: (half serious though... now that'd be an old school test method!)
     
  10. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Wikipedia page on Herschel now updated!
     
  11. Doremus Scudder

    Doremus Scudder Member

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    Okay, I'll bite and ask the stupid question that this thread begs:

    Can one (and would it be safe to) test modern fixers with Herschel's taste test?

    I rather doubt it, but I'd love to hear from the experts (PE?)

    Best,

    Doremus Scudder
     
  12. Photo Engineer

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    Doremus;

    I thought I answered that earlier. No, it would not be safe, nor is it ever safe to taste any photographic or non-food chemical. It may not kill you but it can do damage and make you very ill. The damage includes impaired liver or kidney function which might not show up for years.

    PE
     
  13. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I do not recommend tasting fixer either, since we have all sorts of other, safer ways to deal with chemicals. In Herschel's days, the body was still one of the best detector they had.
     
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  15. PVia

    PVia Member

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    This is a little off-thread, but is probably the best place to include it.

    Someone very close to me is ill with cancer that is being treated via hepatic infusion with the drug, cisplatin(um). During recovery immediately after the infusion, an IV of 25% sodium thiosulfate is given. You can imagine my surprise when I saw the label. It supposedly has a chelation effect on the body in helping to rid it of heavy metals, in this case, platinum, and thereby reduce side effects. The doctor was interested in hearing about its use in photography as well.
     
  16. jvo

    jvo Subscriber

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    great thread...

    undecided whether our early pioneers were really dumb or really courageous...

    makes me wonder who was the person that licked the first frog?
     
  17. moki

    moki Member

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    An old photographer friend of mine with 50+ years of experience once said that fixer (either used or fresh) would work as a strong laxative... aside from the possibility of liver and kidney damage. I guess, as always, the dosage makes the poison, so a drop or two would probably not to any damage. Tasting you chemicals over long periods of time on the other hand, is a different thing. There is a reason for all these orange warning labels. I wouldn't do it as long as there are safer methods available.

    Nontheless, it is very interesting how chemists did their work at that time. And they were neither dumb nor courageous... their own body was simply the most accurate set of sensors available.

    I have a very limited knowledge of chemistry, but I can easily follow the reasoning behind these experiments and how it connects to the photographic process. Most interesting.
     
  18. Photo Engineer

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    Interestingly enough, over the years, we have found as chemists that the taste of a chemical is totally unimportant. The odor has some value. The color and the melting and boiling points are the essential factors in most cases along with other ancillary tests such as IR spectrum analysis, NMR and etc... These guys had no NEED to taste Aniline or Nitrobenzene. And, the first guy to taste Cyanide was probably the last. He reported that it was like Almonds in flavor BTW, as his handwriting faded to a scrawl and he died. :wink:

    PE
     
  19. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

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    Is there any truth to that or is that an old chemist's joke? :wink:
     
  20. Photo Engineer

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    You tell us what you think. About 1 cup of apple seeds contain enough Hydrogen Cyanide to kill someone. It is safe to eat about 6 - 12 with no harmful effects. I've done it! :D The taste and smell are there if the seeds and apple are fresh enough. It is just like Oil of Bitter Almond, which itself is the chemical Benzaldehyde. (also the flavor of maraschino cherries)

    There was a thread on this about 3 years ago. What chemicals are present in what foods and etc.

    PE
     
  21. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

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    Interesting!

    Specifically I was wondering if the 'handwriting fading' bit was true.

    Is it true that a strong acid mixed with potassium ferricyanide can liberate the cyanide and create poisonous gas? My brother said something to this effect and warned me to be careful.

    The real question is.... who would eat apple seeds!? :laugh:
     
  22. Photo Engineer

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    Apple seeds are quite "tasty" and I know a few people who eat the whole apple including the core.

    The handwriting fading is true, but not for that story. A chemist wanted to find out how much HCN could be injected as a minimum dose, and he selected what he thought was well below the minimum to start. He began taking notes and failed to finish the page. I was told this by a professor in Biochem class. He said there is no safe dose when injected.

    Acid mixed with Potassium Ferricyanide does NOT release the Cyanide gas. It requires much stronger treatment to get HCN from Ferricyanide.

    PE
     
  23. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    Horses
     
  24. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

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    I bet a horse could eat 3 cups! haha.

    You'd hate to be the one to make the discovery for lethal dose.
     
  25. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Which reminds me: What the heck do bitter almonds smell like? I can't buy them at the grocery store, and the CSI people keep telling me that there was a smell of bitter almonds lingering around the cyanide poisoned body (but if they could smell it, they would have probably died...).

    How different is the smell from sweet almonds? Is there something available at the store that isn't cyanide with the same smell?
     
  26. Photo Engineer

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    There is no difference in odor and the odor is due to Benzaldehyde.

    PE