Technology has advanced to the level where a tiny camera that’s smaller than your hand is capable of shooting 4K videos and taking amazing underwater photographs. These advancements have come at such a rapid rate that if I asked you “When was the very first underwater picture taken?” I’m almost certain that nobody would guess beyond 90, maybe not even past 70 years? Surprisingly though, the very first underwater photograph was taken an astounding 160 years ago! Back in 1856, William Thompson took the very first underwater photograph by lowering his housed plate camera to the seabed in Weymouth Bay and operating the shutter from a boat anchored over the site.
Thompson was fascinated by marine life and went on to discover several species of anemones and seaweed. He was also a dedicated conservationist and his extensive knowledge on marine life was widely recognized. However, this wasn’t what led him to taking the photograph. It was simply an idea that came to him as he sat at the Portland Ferry Bridge House and wondered about the effects the force of the water would have on the pier of the bridge. He thought about how expensive and difficult it would be to send divers to assess the damage and it was then that the idea of using a camera to assist in a survey came to his head.
He already owned a camera, which he frequently used in his natural history studies. The camera had a plate inside prepared using the collodion process, which meant that he only had a time limit of an hour to expose and develop the image after putting the plate into the camera. A watertight box was made for the camera using plate glass and a weighed hinged shutter that could be raised using a string. This was then fitted on an iron tripod and lowered carefully up to about 18 feet until it stood upright on the seabed of the Bay of Weymouth. His first attempt of a five-minute exposure registered no details. However, he doubled his exposure time for a second attempt and even though water leaked into the housing, he succeeded at taking the first underwater photograph of the faint outlines of boulders and seaweed.
The human mind is truly remarkable and we owe our underwater snaps to William Thompson and his experiment that was executed 160 years ago!