Replica of 1840 Voigtlander cannon and Petzval lens. At Ryerson Library. Wilhelm Nassau commissioned this replica.

Toronto. One of the difficulties experienced by the earliest practitioners of the Daguerreotype process was the lack of speed, This was exacerbated by Daguerre’s use of an f/19 meniscus lens in his camera. In 1840, Josef Petzval partially solved this problem by designing the world’s first photographic lens, a 4 element f/3.7 beauty some 15x faster.

Petzval turned to a famous German optical house, Voigtlander, to manufacture the lens. They made both the lens and a special brass camera called a “cannon” sitting a top a special adjustable brass column. The lens could be focussed on the subject, then carefully lifted off the stand and taken to a darkroom where the conical focussing back was removed and a circular disk, with a round daguerreotype plate inserted, replaced the focussing cone. A brass lens cap kept light off the plate while the camera was returned to the stand.

When the customer was ready, the cap was removed and the exposure taken. With the cap back on the lens, the camera was removed from the stand and returned to the darkroom for processing. Only a few hundred original versions were ever made although Voigtlander offered serial numbered replicas over the ensuing years. Private replicas such as Willie Nassau’s are seen in museum displays.

The Voigtlander company was founded in Vienna as a scientific instrument maker in 1756. Glass optics were introduced about 1808. After the invention of photography, cameras were introduced. The company later moved to Braunschweig in Germany. And in 1956 Voigtlander merged with Zeiss and the fine old optical house disappeared. Voigtlander continued to influence Zeiss-Ikon camera design until 1972. The Voigtlander branch of Zeiss-Ikon was sold many times in the decades since 1972.

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