Open source's roots in the 19th century

Louis Daguerre set a precedent for other to follow – or not

Who pioneered the concept of open source? Red Hat? Sun?

Wired states that the first instance of open-sourcing occurred in 1839, which is much earlier that most people might think. This progenitive incident also has some basic principles in common with more recent events in the computer field of somewhat dubious distinctions. I will leave those particulars out, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out which companies I’m talking about in the events to follow.

Try to guess which modern examples follow the example set by Louis Daguerre if you want.

Before Daguerre came along, a permanent photo would take about eight hours to make. At the time, photographers could only make a negative image on a pewter plate. Daguerre worked out a chemical process that reduced this time to mere minutes, and etched out a positive image. Without that process, a significant step in the history of photography might never have happened. So what tips can we glean from Daguerre's example? 

1) Partner with someone, but then take primary credit, preferably after that partner has died. Daguerre began corresponding with Joseph Niepce, an inventor who held the aforementioned eight-hour developing record, in 1829. They worked together in an attempt to hasten developing time. Niepce died in 1833, and though his son took over, Daguerre is the one the process is named after.

2) Name it after yourself whenever possible. He called it the “Daguerreotype,” and as far as I can tell, he coined it himself. I guess we should count ourselves lucky his name wasn’t Louis Sterey or Louis Heeznoughtmy.

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3) Having a rival with an arguably better product makes for a fun patent battle

While Daguerre was working in France, William Talbot had been working on a similar process (the “calotype”) in England, and was able to show pictures he had made as early as 1834. They both had patents in England, which they both stridently enforced. The calotype eventually won out as the precursor to later photographic methods, and the Deguerrotype became the Betamax, or Neanderthal (take your pick).

4) Get a government grant whenever possible. The reason that Daguerre and “Son of Niepce” made their process free to the world was that the French parliament gave them a quite healthy pension, so that, unencumbered by financial concerns, they – and France – could generously give this new process to the world. If this hadn’t been set up for them, the first occurrence of open-source might have been decades later.

So, you see? Those modern battles in the computer industry are not really a new thing at all. And open-source is hardly a babe in the woods, either. I guess people have been stabbing each other in the back for a long time before the computer era.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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