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  Thomas Bolas

Thomas Bolas, the father of the 'detective camera', was born in Glastonbury, Somerset, England in 1848. By the age of 14, he was assisting chemistry professor Charles W. Heaton in the laboratory of Charing Cross Hospital's medical school. He later became a staff professor at the hospital, where he remained until 1876, and also served as an analytical chemist and consultant to Dr. John Stenhouse and author and photographic chemist Raphael Meldola. Professor Bolas became interested in chemical processes as they applied to printing, photography, glass blowing, rubber, and railway systems. His foray into scientific journalism began with his contributions to such respected publications as Chemical News, the Journal of the Chemical Society, the Journal of the Photographic Society, and Photographic News. He was frequently in demand as a lecturer and served as a Fellow of the Chemical Society and the Institute of Chemistry.

Professor Bolas' interest in photography was a natural progression, and he became an active member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1875. He introduced a hand camera he invented to assist law enforcement - which he dubbed a 'detective camera' - to the Photographic Society in 1880. The box camera - in which 13 double dar slides could be stored - was based on the twin lens reflex camera with separate lenses for viewing and taking, a focusing scale, and a pneumatic shutter release. After developing a cylindrical shutter for his camera, Professor Bolas applied for a patent for his invention, which he received on November 3, 1881. Although there is no historical evidence to suggest that Professor Bolas' camera was ever commercially manufactured, the design served as the blueprint for several popular cameras of the Victorian Age, most notably William Schmid's detective camera. This camera fad reached its peak in Great Britain and the United States during the 1890s, but soon faded at the turn of the century.

In addition to his photographic experimentation, which included what are believed to be among the earliest known studies of flash photography, Professor Bolas dabbled in wireless signal transmission and was also deeply involved in railway reform and politics. An avowed Socialist, he edited several issues of The Socialist and The Practical Socialist. In the wake of Henry Baden Pritchard's death, he assumed the editorial duties of the Photographic News from 1884 to 1891, and is credited with its increased scientific emphasis. Professor Bolas also briefly published his own journal in 1889, The Photographic Review, which resumed publication in February 1890 with a new publisher and editor. Furthermore, he edited two editions of Wall's Dictionary of Photography and authored texts for the photographic retail giant Marion & Co., which included The Photographic Studio: A Guide to its Construction, Design, and the Selection of a Locality (1895) and A Handbook of Photography in Colours (1900). Professor Bolas' active participation in the Photographic Society and in industry publications ceased in the early twentieth century, and he spent his last years in quiet retirement in the London suburb of Wimbledon, where he died on March 1, 1932 at the age of 85. In a tribute published in the British Photographic Journal Almanac published the following year, Thomas Bolas was celebrated for his "encyclopaedic knowledge of all branches of photographic and photo-mechanical work" and was fondly remembered as "a most original character with an immense fund of knowledge and whimsical humour."

1999 Biographical Notes (URL:

1933 British Photographic Journal Almanac (London: Henry Greenwood & Co.), p. 304.

1905 British Journal of Photography, Vol. LII (London: Henry Greenwood & Co.), p. 5.

2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 169-170.

2001 George Eastman House, “Enhancing the Illusion: The Process and Origins of Photography” (URL:

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