Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

“An Engine, Not a Camera”: Photography in/as the History of Combustion

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

In late 1862, a curator from London’s Patent Museum named Francis Pettit Smith traveled to Birmingham on a collecting mission. Seeking to acquire a prototype of James Watt’s steam engine from the Soho manufactory established by Matthew Boulton in the mid-1760s, Smith unearthed an unusual set of chemo-mechanical images. With these images, Smith quickly made a daring intervention as much into the imagining of Enlightenment industrialism as to the consolidating history of photography. Claiming the images (then identifiable as replicas after paintings by Angelika Kauffman, Benjamin West and other leading, Georgian Academicians) as photographs, Smith’s story moved the medium’s invention from the 1820s/30s back to Soho in the final decades of the eighteenth century. While Smith’s intervention was convincing to many leading photographers in the 1860s, it found its greatest opponent in Matthew Piers Watt Boulton, grandson of the Soho industrialist. Boulton’s antagonism is surprising on many levels; for, not only did he effectively destroy Smith’s story, but Boulton simultaneously integrated the curator’s chemo-mechanical findings into his own aircraft designs. This paper argues that, far from being an obfuscating red herring fished from the depths of photo-lore, these contested, material appropriations of eighteenth-century chemical experimentation by Smith and Boulton disclose some broader, inconvenient truths. They allow us to observe the extensive imbrication between major programs of what would come to be called “photography” and combustion-engine research. 

Guest lecturer: Matthew C. Hunter, McGill University
Associate Professor of Art History and Communication Studies