Lippmann, Jonas Ferdinand Gabriel
Gabriel Lippmann was a French inventor and physicist (born in Luxembourg) who created the first color photographs using what was certainly the first spectral imaging system. Lippmann’s system of color photography was conceived in 1886 and then refined for several years due to the complex nature of its theory and implementation. The system works by placing a very fine-grain photographic plate in contact with mercury that acts as a mirror. Light waves pass through the emulsion, reflect from the mercury backing, and then create an interference pattern within the emulsion. The developed plate then has an interference filter built into it due to the properly spaced layers of silver in the emulsion (created by the interference pattern exposure). The plates are then viewed with directional lighting, and the observer sees the same wavelengths that were present in the scene – a spectral image reproduction. Lippmann presented the first color photograph using his system in 1891 and then presented several nearly flawless photographs made by Auguste and Louis Lumière created with the process. The process was difficult and time-consuming, and few have been able to replicate the stunning photographs. Lippmann’s work certainly presaged modern photographic and holographic processes, and for it he received the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Despite ending up a full professor at the Sorbonne (University of Paris), Lippmann had no formal education beyond high school. He was a student at the École Normale, but failed the examination that would have qualified him as a teacher due to his penchant for concentrating only on the work that interested him and neglecting the rest. However, he was appointed to a government scientific mission to Germany where he was able to work with the likes of Kirchhoff and Helmholtz. At about the same time, in 1873, he invented the Lippmann capillary electrometer for precise measurements of extremely small electrical voltages. It served as the basis for early echocardiographs. Lippmann joined the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1878, became Professor of Mathematical Physics in 1883, and was later appointed Professor of Experimental Physics and Director of the Research Laboratory. He made many contributions in various fields of physics including electricity, thermodynamics, optics, and photochemistry.
In addition to his Nobel Prize for the Lippmann process of full-color photography, Gabriel Lippmann served as Marie Curie’s thesis advisor at the Sorbonne and let her use his laboratory for her thesis work in radioactivity and helped her find other sources of support. Lippmann died at sea in 1921 while returning from a voyage to Canada. There is no record of the cause of death.
Lippmann’s Nobel lecture on color photography can be found at the following link: