Hard to believe but true: the first known underwater pictures were taken more than 150 years ago – in 1856 by Englishman William Thompson. According to The British Society of Underwater Photographers, Thompson didn’t dive to take his photographs. Instead, he lowered his “housed plate camera” into the Weymouth Bay.
Thompson came from a wealthy family and he owned a 104-ton yawl named “Waif” and a 12-ton cutter named “Feather Star.” Both were used to trawl and dredge Weymouth Bay. He was fascinated by the marine life off the Dorset area and was credited for discovering “several new species of anemones and seaweeds,” and he created underwater gardens of a pretty seaweed known as “Peacock’s Tail.”
It was a stormy day. Thompson and a friend were stuck inside the Portland Ferry Bridge House, where they observed the water pounding the bridge. He wondered about the underwater damage and apparently cringed at the expense of hiring a diver to get more information.
He already owned a camera that he used to study natural history, surrounded in plate glass that he hoped made it reasonably watertight. He fitted it on an iron tripod and used a rope to lower it into the sea – more specifically, “a nook in the bay of Weymouth which is bounded by a ridge of rocks (where the area within is of sand and boulders and thickly clothed with many species of seaweeds).”
Once the boxed camera was lowered about 18 feet from a rowboat, Thompson pulled a string that opened the hinged shutter of the camera. On his second try, “he obtained a reasonable satisfactory negative” from which he developed a print of rocks and seaweed. He created a better device for underwater photography, but then lost interest in his experimentation.
Interestingly enough, the society says that some of the finest underwater photography in recent years has been taken within a few miles of the spot of Thompson’s experimentation. Even today, Peacock’s Tail seaweed washes to the shore in Weymouth Bay, a silent natural tribute to William Thompson.
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