Old photo flashes were crazy dangerous…

Nowadays the vast majority of our devices (phones, cameras, tablets…) are equipped with electronic LED flash directly integrated and extremely powerful. But you can imagine that before the current days, technology wasn’t the same as today. All the means used to capture photos in dark places were quite different from those we know nowadays and the first flashes were even, how to say… extremely dangerous!

Maybe you’ve already seen this kind of photographer holding in his hand like a big birthday firecracker candle producing a big light source and smoke? Well, this is the ancestor of our flash, better known as a flash powder! But what is it? 

In 1887, two German chemists Adolf Mieetke and Johannes Gaedicke invented the “lightning powder”.

Basically, it is a mixture of a metallic fuel, usually mercury, and an oxidizer such as chlorate. When the two materials come into contact and ignite, it instantly causes a huge flash of light that burns very quickly. But this method was actually very dangerous because everything was done by hand, it was the photographer himself who had to set the powder on fire before taking the picture and this could seriously injure him or those nearby. That’s how you couldn’t miss the opportunity to take your picture, otherwise you would have to make another small explosion!

Indeed, photographers were at constant risk of hand or face burns or worse. But despite their caution, many photographers ended up injured and some even lost their lives while trying to prepare the powder mixture. It’s the case of George Sheldon. On October 16, 1930, during a reception in the rotunda of the San Francisco City Hall, the photographer George Sheldon lost a part of his right hand following the explosion of a flash powder bottle. The flashlight powder was composed of magnesium and potash, a mixture even more explosive than dynamite. Although Sheldon was known to be careful in handling flash powder, he and a dozen other people were burned and/or injured that day.

Very quickly, it was necessary to find a safer mechanism, less dangerous but just as effective to avoid the risks of burns or worse. That’s how photographer Paul Boyer and inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen, known at the time for his model railroads and toy trains, created the flash lamp in the late 19th century.

Their technique consisted in keeping the flash powder but adding a small protective box which had a role to retain the powder which ignited via electricity which came from dry cell batteries. Moreover, the lamp was directly connected to the camera body, which allowed to activate the flash when the photographer took the picture… much more convenient for him! Finally, another feature added by Paul Boyer and Joshua Lionel Cowen was that you could place the lamp on a tripod away from the camera and even connect multiple flash lamps.

Although flash powder and its sister flash lamp may have made it possible to take the first pictures with more light, this technique was really very dangerous by today’s norms. Nowadays, flash powder is still used in some theaters but especially for the production of fireworks but is very controlled. 

So the next time you take a picture with your flash, realize how lucky you are to just press a small phone button!

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