Adriaan Paauw

1765 - 1792

The most spectacular discovery in my career as a photo collector was without doubt the work of Adriaan Paauw, most likely the first inventor of photography. During a routine visit to the weekly antique market in The Hague, one of the dealers showed me a tin box containing a well-thumbed copy of an eighteenth-century scientific literature classic – the Chemische Abhandlung von der Luft und dem Feuer by the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele. The box also included photographic artefacts which I recognized as some kind of salt prints and two notebooks dated 1788 and 1789 by a certain Adriaan Paauw. Intensive study of this material has shown that the salt prints by Adriaan Paauw are the earliest photographs ever made.


Adriaan Paauw was born on June 23, 1765 on the Oude Herengracht in Leiden. His father, Jan Paauw junior, was a wealthy instrument maker who still enjoys some fame for his so-called ‘universal microscope’. Paauw began studying to become a pharmacist at young age, working under Galenus van der Kaaij in Leiden. He appears to have been a successful student and completed his apprenticeship in 1788. Possibly on the advice of Van der Kaaij, he also took lessons in botany with professor Sebald Justinus Brugmans at the Hortus Botanicus. At the time, it was customary to combine pharmacy training with a study of botany: virtually all medicines were extracted from plants. Brugmans was not only a botanist, but also held the chair of natural history. He collected all sorts of exotic plants that he imported for ‘his academic garden’ and compiled a Cabinet of Natural History for the university. It is not surprising that Paauw’s interest in botany and natural history was awakened by this charismatic figure. Instead of a career as a pharmacist after his training, he chose to follow an apprenticeship with Brugmans. From 1788 until his death in 1792, he worked in the Hortus of Leiden, studying the influence of rare tropical plants on the lives of native beetle species. He bred some modified beetles which are still displayed in various natural history museums.

Two pages from the note books of Adriaan Paauw

Most information about Paauw comes from the two small notebooks dated 1788 and 1789. The issues he raises are testament to a broad interest and a lively imagination. In addition to biological insights on issues such as the intensity of the green colour of leaves and the meaning of birdsong, the booklets contain more general thoughts and contemplations. Paauw made psychological observations on the character differences between men and women, on love and on consumption and mused over the possibility of future predictions.
One of Paauw’s tasks in the Hortus was cataloguing the items collected by Brugmans for the Cabinet. It is likely that this additional task led to his invention of photography. The objects appearing in Paauw’s photos, in as far as they are still identifiable, are embodied in Brugmans’ collection and it is plausible to assume that Paauw wanted to automate cataloguing these objects via a photographic process. This would increase the reliability of the catalogue significantly and the items in the Cabinet would be uniformly stored using photograms. In addition, a photographic method is much more efficient than drawing or describing objects and, for Paauw, would have meant considerable relief from this tedious work. The method he developed seems deceptively simple: he made sensitized paper with silver chloride and after exposure fixed his images in an ammonia solution. Note that in the history of photography, Paauw is probably alone in having fixed his photographs with ammonia. As it appears now, this elegant process gave us the earliest photographs in history. Unlike other pioneers of photography, Paauw has only made photograms. As explained above, his concept of photography did not grow from the desire to capture the image of the camera, but from the possibility of copying objects automatically without intervention of the camera.
Adriaan Paauw died in an accident on October 7, 1792 at the age of 27. While he was collecting material in one of the trees in the Hortus, he slipped and broke his neck. His untimely death deprived him of the opportunity to finish his photographic inquiry to such a extend that it would be ready for publication. He had no brothers or sisters and it is unclear what happened to his belongings after the death of his parents, who both survived him.

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