Anna Atkins: A Steampunk Feminist Perspective of a Woman in Science

Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins

Chromagram by Anna Atkis

A Study in Blue: A Cyanotype Photogram by Anna Atkins

  A Cyanotype Photogram is a type of camera-less photography, where the image is created by laying an item directly on photographic paper and then exposing it to light. Anna Atkins used the technique discovered and developed by Sir John Herschel, which is the same technique used to produce blueprints. She used this technique to produce her three volumes of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. These books were published between 1843 and 1853, and were among the first textbooks to use photography for illustrations. Anna Atkins was both an accomplished scientist (in an era when women scientists were rare) and the first female photographer, which makes you wonder by she isn’t better known.

Anna was born in 1799, and was the only child of John George Children, a British chemist, mineralogist, zoologist and polymath. He gave her an ‘unusual’ education for a girl and she became his assistant; she made detailed engravings of shells that were used to illustrate her father’s translation of Lamarck’s Genera of Shells. She married a London West India merchant, John Atkins, who was a friend of her father, Sir John Herschel and William Fox Talbot ( another British inventor and photography pioneer). He appears to have had no objections to her botanical pursuits, which is unsurprising when you consider his friendships with scientific geniuses. It also appears that these friendships influenced Anna Atkins own studies.

In the Victorian Era, Botany was considered the only field of science suitable for ladies. Zoology would, at some point, would bring the unsuitable topic of sex into the equation. Women were considered too frail mentally and emotionally to handle ‘hard’ sciences like physics and chemistry. Botany involved pretty flowers, and people studiously ignored the fact that flowers and fruit were the sexual organs of plants (pun intended). Anna Atkins added photographic gadgetry to her botanical studies toolkit and researched algae, not flowers.

If I was to write up Anna Atkins as a Steampunk character, she would seem to be a proper Victorian lady at first glance, until you got to know her better. She would be secretly subversive, fighting against the Patriarch by her example rather than straightforward protest. Her collaborator was Anna Dixon, who unfortunately I can’t find any details about. The two Annas produced at least three albums of cyanotype photograms, two of which were botanical reference books. To me, this indicates that Anna Atkins supported the ideal that any woman could be a scientist and do useful research.

If anyone had any information about Anna Dixon, I would be most grateful if you would share it with me.

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Filed under Characterization, Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Women in Science

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