Francis Herbert Wenham was born in the London district of Kensington in 1824. The son of a military surgeon, Mr. Wenham displayed keen mechanical and analytical at an early age. After the death of his father, the 17-year-old became a marine engineering apprentice, and would for the remainder of his life take great pride in his accomplishments as a marine engineer. His first important project was forging a crankshaft for 'Great Western' merchant ship. Mr. Wenham's boundless curiosity led him to study microscopes, and by age 26, he was an active member of the Royal Microscopical Society. He authored several papers on illumination under a microscope and perfected aperture measurements of object glasses. He also received several patents for his lighting improvements to gas lamps.
Mr. Wenham's interest in photography actually began quite by accident. In 1853, he accompanied his friend, British photographer Francis Frith, on a lengthy voyage to Egypt and Palestine. The photographs of this expedition are believed to be the first of the exotic landscape and Egyptian tombs utilizing the wet-collodion plate process. It is doubtful Mr. Frith could have successfully photographed the dark tombs without the sophisticated lighting techniques Mr. Wenham developed through the use of mirrors. The subsequent photographic compilation was an immediate success, and Mr. Wenham was soon splitting his time between his engineering pursuits and his photographic experiments. Although he described himself as a rank amateur, his knowledge of optics and microscopy enabled him to make life-size portraits with his own homemade solar camera (referred to at the time as a “sun enlarger”). He is also recognized for having produced the first enlarged calotype paper photographs from collodion negatives.
It is believed Mr. Wenham's fascination with aviation commenced in 1866, when he was issued a patent for an engineering design that enabled Lawrence Hargrave to construct the first box kite in 1893. He also collaborated with optician John Browning on the construction of the first wind tunnel in 1870, the same year he retired from engineering. Upon the recommendation of his friend, The Photographic Journal editor George Shadbolt, he joined Ross & Co. as a scientific advisor. Credited with several microscope advancements during his decade-long tenure, Mr. Wenham also developed portable symmetrical lenses that vastly improved upon Thomas Grubb's original design, and were eagerly embraced by long-suffering landscape photographers.
Rapidly detereorating health led to Mr. Wenham's retirement from Ross & Co. After a lengthy illness, 85-year-old Francis Herbert Wenham died on August 11, 1908. In a memorial tribute in the October 1908 issue of The Aeronautical Journal, he was described as "the 'father' of aeronautics." Ironically, it was Mr. Wenham's optical innovations that contributed significantly to the evolution of twentieth-century landscape photography.
1908 The British Journal of Photography, Vol. LV (London: Henry Greenwood & Co.), pp. 641-643.
1997 A History of Aerodynamics: and its Impact on Flying Machines by John D. Anderson, Jr. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), pp. 119-126.
1904 Northlight, Vol. VII (Phoenix, AZ: Arizona State University Department of Art), pp. 21-22.
1910 Vehicles of the Air by Victor Lougheed (Chicago: The Reilly and Britton Co.), p. 149.
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