“crackpots” who were right 6: Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor

Who discovered Radioactivity? Every physics student has heard the story of how Henri Becquerel made the chance discovery while studying the effects of light on chemicals using photographic plates in 1896. He normally exposed the chemicals to sunlight and then left them on a photographic plate in a dark drawer to see if they would expose the plate. One day he was trying the experiment with some uranium salts but the sky stayed cloudy, so he put the plates and chemicals in the drawer without the exposure to wait for better light. When he took them out he decided to develop the plates anyway and was surprised to find that they had been darkened despite the lack of light. He had discovered the effects of radioactivity.

Becquerel was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903. His contribution is further recognised in the modern name for the unit of radioactivity.

What most people don’t know is that the same discovery had been made some four decades earlier by Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor. Like Becquerel he was studying the effects of light on various chemicals and was using photographic plates to test the reaction. He also used uranium salts and found that they continued to blacken the plates long after any exposure to light had been stopped. Fluorescence and Phosphorescence had been known for many years and Niepce knew that this new observation did not conform to either phenomena. He reported his results to the Academy of Sciences in France several times.

A few scientists including Foucault commented on the findings but no-one had a good explanation. Surprisingly no-one seems to have tried to replicate them and it is likely that everyone thought that there was most likely some experimental error. In any case  Niepce and his discovery were soon forgotten.

When Becquerel rediscovered the same result as Niepce the situation was very different. By then X-rays were known and physicists were ready to appreciate that another new type of ray could exist. One physicist Gustave Le Bon pointed to the prior work of Niepce de Saint-Victor but he was ridiculed. Any further chance that Niepce might gain some recognition were extinguished when the Nobel Committee awarded the physics prize to Becquerel.

The story of Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor is typical of what happens to scientists who make a discovery whose importance is not recognised at the time. You would expect that when the effect is rediscovered later, people would appreciate the original discoverer, but that is not what happens. Usually the new discoverer gets most or all of the credit and the original scientists contribution is neglected because he failed to grab everybody’s attention, even if he managed to publish the result six times. In this case it is only in recent years that some small amount of appreciation for the work of Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor has finally emerged.

5 Responses to “crackpots” who were right 6: Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor

  1. Dear Philip Gibbs,

    You long list of mocked discoverers is beginning to get me depressed… The situation is actually worse than I could ever thought without your investigation.


  2. Phil Gibbs says:

    This is just a small sample so far, but no need to be depressed. There are lessons to learn. Most of them could have improved their situation if they had just communicated their ideas better and more widely. With today’s technology that is easier for us. People should not have to wait until they are dead before they are recognised.

    Looking at these you do get the impression that at any time in history there were several great breakthroughs that were being ignored. Perhaps when I have more I should draw a timeline to see how things have stood over time. The conclusion of course is that even now there are probably a few good ideas that people are trying to push but that are being ignored. I wonder what they are.

  3. Perhaps, yes… Perhaps struggling for your own ideas is the only way to be a scientist, and recognition is then only to be understood as a bonus, not an expectation. However, the fear is not laid in the time it takes to get recognized, but in the tragedy of working hard and long for something someone could pick up and get all honors from. I guess many of those reading this weblog would think the same as me.


  4. dear Jerome

    dont give up yet

    fortunately now due to the initiative of Dr Phillip Gibbs scientists have viXra to communicate their ideas

    like Dr Gibbs say a scientist no longer needs to wait till his death to get his work reckognized

    and due to Dr Gibbs initiative a scientist no longer needs to fear censorship or blacklisting

    i can and i will give you an example :

    there are here in viXra two Russian scientists with a work of excellent quality

    and i underline the word excellent ….

    i gave up from my work on Dark Matter to adopt their ideas in order to melt their work with my own in order to
    produce a new paper…that will appear on viXra in the future of course

    the funny thing is the fact that their work also appears in arXiv with the same title

    i checked both versions and the viXra version is by far much more advanced and of better quality

    i think that these Russian scientists are facing the same problem i have!! arXiv blacklisting!!!!

    the arXiv version is from 2003 while the viXra version almost three times bigger and of superior quality is from

    i read their work calculation by calculation equation by equation making every mathematical QED (Quod Erad Demonstratum) of their formulas and i became so impressive with their ideas that i threw away my work on Dark Matter adopted their work for my next one and plus…i went to Google to check if their work would appear elsewhere…and yes!!!! it appeared!!!!..and what a big surprise!!!! their work appeared…inside arXiv !!!!

    like i reckognized their work due to viXra i can sure that they will get reckognition from others ..without having to wait for their deaths

    perhaps due to the initiative of Dr Phillip Gibbs many scientists here on viXra that now are outcasts of(or from) the scientific community will still get worldwide reckognition..without having to wait for their deaths

    all they have to do is to produce a good work(and hope or wait that their work appears on a Google query)

    i will not mention here the names of the Russian scientists because this is a public blog that appears on Google querys(when i made a Google query for my viXra:1002.0048 my posts on viXra blog appears) and perhaps they want to have privacy but you can take the titles of all the submissions made on viXra by Russians make Google querys with the titles and their work will appear…as an example that viXra as an e-print server can do exactly the same things of arXiv..a valid repository of e-prints suitable to be published

    viXra will get reckognition and prestige from all the scientific community as people like these Russian
    scientists appears here so all this fuss about arXiv and the moderation or blacklist policies will disappear as times goes by and viXra grows..a day will come when we no longer will need to worry about blacklisting .and what is more funny!!!!!…one of the main contributions for the future success of viXra will come from former arXiv blacklisted scientists because if they cannot contribute there due to the blacklisting so their works will continue to progress and evolve..here on viXra!!!!!

    like i said before..a day will come when viXra will outperforms or surpass arXiv with e-prints of better quality because scientists will no longer have fear of censorship or blacklisting when announcing their most advanced(or boldest)ideas..these two Russians are an example..and i hope that until the arrival of that day i will not have to wait too much longer

    and also like i said before.,,we must praise and applause viXra and the initiative of Dr Phillip Gibbs

    so dear Jerome it is still too early to give up…and dont loose your hope…there is still light in the end of
    the tunnel

    because viXra is still here..and the game is still not over

  5. victor santos says:

    hola me gusta el arte la fotografia la musica etc, y no sabia muschas cosas de inventos cientificos asi que felisiades por las notas.
    victor santos de michoaca mexico saludos a todos

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