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Story of the photographic flash

Historical archives

Illustration from Eric Mertens' website -

In the mid-19th century, exposure duration was around 30 seconds. Subjects were generally seated against plain backgrounds and lit with the soft light of an overhead window and whatever else could be reflected with mirrors.

Then, an important discovery was made: the burning of magnesium wires is producing a very bright light… and also a lot of white smoke!

In 1887, two German chemists Adolf Mieetke and Johannes Gaedicke invent the « flash Light powder ». It is an explosive mixture made of magnesium, potassium chlorate and sulfide of antimony.

Some photographers started to use this “Flash Light Powder” during the shooting to help shorten the exposure time. Given the sensitivity of the dry plates, the lack of perfect synchronization between the occurrence of the light and the exposure itself was not really a problem.

Different light equipments using “Flash Light Powder” were proposed. Firms like Kodak sold flash lamps ignited with a gas flame. Agfa offered a combination of a tray for the flash powder with a gas lighter pistol.

One thing is sure, the handling of the flash powder was dangerous.

In 1925, a German scientist - Paul Vierkötter – invent the first electric flash bulb. His invention was improved and patented by another German scientist – Johannes Ostermeyer.

The first company to produce flash bulbs (Sashalite bulbs) was General Electric UK in 1927. The bulbs gave light by burning a mesh of thinnest crumpled aluminum wires and foils in an instant, ignited by the power of a simple battery.
The bulbs could be used only once. Immediately, they replaced the unwieldy and dangerous
earliest magnesium light equipments.

This process evolved during the WW II with the invention of electronic flashes giving light from electronic gas-discharge tubes. It became common in amateur photography electronic flashguns only in the 1960s, when small light transistors and thyristors were invented.

However, electronic flashguns did not immediately replaced the flash bulbs. All the popular cameras produced from 1960 to the mid-1970s still used multi-bulb flash systems, disposable plastic cubes with four bulbs (Magicubes), or disposable flip-flashes with more bulbs in one piece.

Today, modern cameras have inbuilt flash units.

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