Born in Cincinnati Ohio on April 13, 1827, Peter Neff was the son of William and Elizabeth (Wayne) Neff. He received his education at Cincinnati's Woodward High School, the Swinburne Academy of White Plains, New York, and graduated from Kenyon College in 1849. While attending Kenyon College, Mr. Neff met Hamilton L. Smith, a professor of chemistry, astronomy, and natural philosophy. After his marriage to Sarah A. Biggs in 1850, Mr. Neff attended Bexley Hall Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1854. Thereafter, he became the pastor of Christ Church in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he remained for two years until a throat ailment forced him into an early retirement from the ministry.
Mr. Neff became reacquainted with Professor Smith, who had been exploring the practical possibilities of taking pictures on iron plates rather than the glass plates required for daguerreotypes. The duo collaborated on a process, which became known as melainotype, a technique by which collodion negatives could be produced upon black enameled iron plates. Making the switch to iron was extremely important from a consumer standpoint because using iron rather than glass reduced the cost of photographs substantially. Professor Smith patented the melainotype process in early 1856, and promptly sold the rights to his former student.
While making iron plates was more affordable than glass, Mr. Neff quickly encountered problems procuring sheet iron that was thin enough for the melainotype process. He purchased several tons of Tagers iron, and then Mr. Neff coated these iron sheets with a varnish he invented to satisfy the melainotype requirements. For his efforts, he was awarded a bronze medal from the American Institute of New York. This process became extremely profitable, which generated considerable competition to control such a lucrative new market. Mr. Neff's chief rival was one-time Kenyon College classmate Victor Griswold, who developed a similar approach he patented as the tintype process.
During the 1860s, Mr. Neff applied his geological experience to a study of oil fields in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. However, he continued inventing various types of photographic processes. For instance, in December 1874, he invented a method that improved the manufacturing of enameled metallic plates by applying decorative borders or margins to conventional mats or frames. His company also began manufacturing lamp black from oil lamps that could then be used in watercolors or ink. In 1888, Mr. Neff settled in Cleveland, where he became the librarian of the Western Reserve Historical Society. During his tenure, the library grew in size and in content, with Mr. Neff donating several documents from his own private collection. Peter Neff died on May 11, 1903, ironically the same year as his professor and scientific collaborator Hamilton Smith.
1906 The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. XIII (New York: James T. White & Company), pp. 253-254.
2007 Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society), pp. 37-38.
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