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Color Photography's Sesquicentennial

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 25, 2011 10:15 PM

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150 years ago this month, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (inventor of electromagnetic theory) and Thomas Sutton, a photographer, took the world's first color photograph. The photo, of a tartan ribbon, was actually created by taking three black-and-white photographs; they were taken through red, green, and blue filters, and then thrown onto a screen by three projectors, each casting its light through a filter of the appropriate color (like so). Maxwell came up with the scheme when he discovered that the cells in our retinas are sensitive, separately, to red, green, and blue light. Maxwell presented the photo during a lecture at King's College London on May 17, 1861.

The first color photograph.

Phil Coomes, a photo editor for the BBC, explains that up until the 1980s color photos were still transmitted and broadcast this way:

As late as the 1980s wire photographs would be transmitted by news agencies such as the Associated Press and printed out by the client as three black and white pictures; these would then be photographed through the same filters and re-constituted as a colour print. As electronic delivery took over this method moved to the computer, but even then the pictures would arrive in three parts ready for the client to reassemble. It was sometime before full colour transmission was widespread.

When an image needed to be shown on color TV, producers would snap a Polaroid of the three filtered and projected images, and then put it in front of the camera.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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