Little biographical information exists about English photographic pioneer and merchant Frederick Charles Luther Wratten beyond that he was born in 1840. At the age of 21, he became a clerk at Joseph Solomon's Photographic & Optical Warehouse in London. By the 1870s, Mr. Wratten's fascination with photographic processes led to experimentation with collodion plates, and he quickly determined that gelatine, not collodion, would produce dry plates in the future.
In 1877, Mr. Wratten formed a partnership with Henry Wainwright, and the pair opened Wratten & Wainwright on Great Queen Street in London. Within a year, they were marketing their own variety of collodion dry plates known as London Ordinary Gelatin Dry Plates that were fifteen times faster than other dry plates. However, at the time, competition for developing and selling dry plates was intense, with the Liverpool Dry Plate and Photographic Printing Company, Newcastle's Mawson & Swan, and Kingston-on-Thames' Samuel Fry & Co. also vying with Wratten & Wainwright for a small market share. Further complicating matters, the manufacturing of these dry plates was extremely challenging from a mass production standpoint because the emulsion batch consistency was difficult to maintain.
Ever the innovator, Mr. Wratten developed the concept of "noodling" as an emulsion cleanser. He chilled and set the gelatine and silver bromide mixture and then removed the accumulating jelly. Next, after resetting and re-noodling, the emulsion could be washed away more efficiently, which enhanced its overall consistency. By the 1880s, Wratten & Wainwright had successfully marketed other dry plates including "London Instantaneous," "Slow," and "Ordinary" plates that became regarded as the industry's benchmark.
In 1887, Wratten & Wainwright began marketing their own variety of cameras such as the tailboard field camera. This "Improved Folding Tail Model" featured no construction credit, and so it was assumed to have been an in-house creation, although it has long been believed that Wratten & Wainwright merely marketed and sold cameras that were made by others. Between 1887 and 1895, other cameras, including the "New Double" instant camera, were designed and sold.
The partners - now joined by Mr. Wratten's son Sidney Herbert Wratten (1871-1944) - opened an emulsion and coating factory in Croydon in 1890. Sidney Wratten subsequently hired Dr. C. E. Kenneth Mees (1882-1960) as a researcher, which became a considerable coup for the profitable company. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Mees developed a panchromatic plate, the first of its kind. Dr. Mees was also credited with the manufacturing of sophisticated photographic filters that attracted the attention of New York's Eastman Kodak Company. In 1912, Eastman Kodak purchased both Wratten & Wainwright and the filters with the stipulation that they would continue to be manufactured under the Wratten name. Dr. Mees promptly became Kodak's Director of Research. As for the man who created an empire from a dry plate emulsion, Frederick Charles Luther Wratten remained a highly sought after industry consultant well into his 80s, before his death in London on April 8, 1926 at the age of 86. Despite the popularity of digital photography, the Wratten filter numbering system is still being used today by photography aficionados and astronomers.
2007 Basics Photography: Capturing Colour (Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA), p. xxxviii.
1996 Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology (London: Routledge), p. 771.
2012 Catchers of the Light: The Astrophotographers' Family History (Mountain View, CA: Google Books), p. 1327.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1513-1514.
2012 Science & Society Picture Library (URL: http://www.ssplprints.com/image.php?imgref=10447650).
2012 Wood and Brass: British Wood and Brass Cameras Before 1914 (URL: http://www.woodandbrass.co.uk/detail.php?cat_num=0079).
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