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Dead medium: Dancer's novelty microphotographs; Dagron's balloon post
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow,
Faber and

Faber 1996 ISBN 0-571-17242-3
from an essay titled "Sliding Scales: Microphotography

and the Victorian Obsession with the Minuscule," by Marina Benjamin

(pages 99-122)

"John Benjamin Dancer is not a name to be reckoned with

in the annals of science. Reading the various

biographical notices written since his death in 1887, one

is struck with a certain sense of pathos; not even the

liberal sprinkling of well-meaning hyperbole endemic to

biographical memoirs of scientific societies can disguise

the salvage exercise. Here was a man who almost

discovered ozone, failed to patent a number of ingenious

optical and mechanical devices that might have made him a

fortune, improved other people's discoveries rather than

made his own, an optician who lost his sight and died

courting penury. In short, a man whose career was a

catalogue of near misses, bad management and consequential

blunders. (...)

"Dancer dabbled in the possibility of combining

microscopy with photography from the start. During a

lecture at the Mechanics Institute in Liverpool, before an

audience of 1,500 people, he made a Daguerreotype image of

a flea magnified to six inches in length. (...) It was

only with Scott Archer's development of the wet collodion

process in 1851 that he (((Dancer))) was able to produce

successful microphotographs, which by virtue of being

reproducible became commercially viable.

"Mounted on standard 3 X 1 glass slides,

microphotographs look deceptively like histological

preparations, that is, ultra-thin slivers of living

tissue, but when magnified 100 times, the inscrutable tiny

black dot glued in place is revealed to be an exquisite,

fine-grained reproduction of Raphael's Madonna or the

ruins of Tintern Abbey, not a delicate tranche of liver or

a cluster of blood platelets. (...)

"Their subjects ranged from portraits of the

great and good == eminent scientists, European royals,

political and military dignitaries, literati and

thespians; celebrated paintings; religious texts, like

the Lord's Prayer or the Sermon on the Mount; extracts

from Tennyson, Dickens, Milton, Byron and Pope; to views

from around the world (forerunners of the tourist

snapshot). (((Yes, you read this correctly == John

Benjamin Dancer made and sold text "content" to be

accessed through a home microscope.)))

"Dancer produced his first commercial slide in 1853

== a rather austere picture of electrician William

Sturgeon's memorial tablet. By 1873 he was advertising

nearly 300 microphotographs and by the end of his career

the grand total had risen to over 500. Precisely how he

manufactured his microscopic marvels remains a trade

secret, since he never ventured into print on the subject.

It is known that in experimental trials he used the eyes

of recently killed oxen as photographic lenses and that he

began the process with 4 X 5 inch collodion glass-plate

negatives, but beyond that it can only be assumed that his

method of reduction bore some similarity to that

publicized by George Shadbolt in 1857. At the time

Shadbolt was President of the Microscopical Society and

editor of the *Photographic Journal,* in whose pages a

priority dispute over the invention of microphotography

took place, Dancer winning the day.

"Almost as soon as Dancer perfected the mechanics

of reproduction, he began selling microphotographs as

novelty items. At a shilling a slide, and with decent

parlour microscopes to be had for a few pounds,

microphotographic entertainment was an economic method of

rational recreation. (...) In fact the market for

microphotographs was sufficiently sizeable to make it

profitable for Dancer to sell his slides to a number of

retailers of scientific instruments. (...)

"Sir David Brewster, who in the 1850s was

Professor of Physics at St Andrews, saw streams of

possibilities emanating from Dancer's invention. In an

article on the micrometer for the eighth edition of the

*Encyclopaedia Britannica,* he waxed futuristic on

Dancer's technique: 'Microscopic copies of dispatches and

valuable papers and plans might be transmitted by post,

and secrets might be placed in spaces not larger than a

full stop or a small blot of ink.' While his latter

reverie was to remain confined to the pages of spy novels,

the former was genuinely prophetic: Brewster took

examples of Dancer's work on his Continental tour in 1857

where they were seen by French photographer Prudent

Dagron, who in 1870 used the method to relay messages by

carrier pigeon between besieged Paris and Tours."

(((Microphotography -- from experimental 19th century

optical science, to parlour toy medium, to mass

communication media for France under siege. Dancer the

half-baked entrepreneur, to Brewster the teacher and pop

science writer, to Dagron the entrepreneur and spy. It's

a very satisfying story, but a large gap remains -- how

did the Confederate spies in Canada learn to create and

conceal microformed documents in the clothing of hired

British agents? == bruces)))