Petzval, Josef Max

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b. 1807 Spisska-Beila, Hungary
d. 17 September 1891 Vienna, Austria
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Hungarian mathematician and photographic-lens designer, inventor of the first "rapid" portrait lens.
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Although born in Hungary, Petzval was the son of German schoolteacher. He studied engineering at the University of Budapest and after graduation was appointed to the staff as a lecturer. In 1835 he became the University's Professor of Higher Mathematics. Within a year he was offered a similar position at the more prestigious University of Vienna, a chair he was to occupy until 1884.
The earliest photographic cameras were fitted with lenses originally designed for other optical instruments. All were characterized by small apertures, and the long exposures required by the early process were in part due to the "slow" lenses. As early as 1839, Petzval began calculations with the idea of producing a fast achromatic objective for photographic work. For technical advice he turned to the Viennese optician Peter Voigtländer, who went on to make the first Petzval portrait lens in 1840. It had a short focal length but an extremely large aperture for the day, enabling exposure times to be reduced to at least one tenth of that required with other contemporary lenses. The Petzval portrait lens was to become the basic design for years to come and was probably the single most important development in making portrait photography possible; by capturing public imagination, portrait photography was to drive photographic innovation during the early years.
Petzval later fell out with Voigtländer and severed his connection with the company in 1845. When Petzval was encouraged to design a landscape lens in the 1850s, the work was entrusted to another Viennese optician, Dietzler. Using some early calculations by Petzval, Voigtländer was able to produce a similar lens, which he marketed in competition, and an acrimonious dispute ensued. Petzval, embittered by the quarrel and depressed by a burglary which destroyed years of records of his optical work, abandoned optics completely in 1862 and devoted himself to acoustics. He retired from his professorship on his seventieth birthday, respected by his colleagues but unloved, and lived the life of a recluse until his death.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Member of the Hungarian Academy of Science 1873.
Further Reading
J.M.Eder, 1945, History of Photography, trans. E. Epstean, New York (provides details of Petzval's life and work; Eder claims he was introduced to Petzval by mutual friends and succeeded in obtaining personal data).
Rudolf Kingslake, 1989, A History of the Photographic Lens, Boston (brief biographical details).
L.W.Sipley, 1965, Photography's Great Inventors, Philadelphia (brief biographical details).
JW

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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