by Roy Winsby.
J. B. Dancer, the celebrated Manchester optician and instrument maker, was born in London, the son of Josiah Dancer, also an optician and manufacturer of optical, philosophical and nautical instruments. Josiah and his family moved from London to Liverpool in 1817. J.B. took over his father's business in 1835 but moved to Manchester from Liverpool in 1841 when he was aged 29 and with a Mr.Abraham set up the business of Abraham & Dancer at 13 Cross Street, Manchester. Assisted by some capable assistants he designed and made his own instruments and optical equipment. Abraham left the partnership after four years and returned to his home city of Liverpool.
Dancer was an orthodox optician supplying spectacles, as well as being an inventor and instrument maker of outstanding ability. At a young age he had acquired the art of grinding microscope and others types of lenses. During his lifetime he made substantial contributions to microscopy, photography and science.
Achromatic lenses were greatly improved by Lister in 1824, following which microscopes with achromatic objectives were produced by such manufacturers as Andrew Ross, James Smith and Powell & Lealand, though they were very expensive. When Dancer moved to Manchester in 1841 he was surprised to find that there were only two achromatic microscopes in the city. He began to produce them more cheaply and supplied achromatic microscopes to prominent scientists etc. like Dr.John Dalton, Dr.J.P.Joule, Joseph Sidebotham, Dr.W.B.Carpenter, and a host of others to replace the Culpeper and other simple type microscopes they had been using.
In 1839, when he was still at Liverpool, Dancer pioneered the making of microphotographs mounted on slides for microscope viewing, but the system he first used, the Daguerro process, was not satisfactory as the photographs were on an opaque background and consequently the quality of the enlarged microphotograph under the microscope was poor and could not be viewed with magnifications exceeding x20. In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer of Manchester introduced the collodion process which involved a very fine grain image on glass with a sensitised covering of collodion and this process, by which images in very fine detail could be recorded, was used by Dancer to start producing vastly improved microphotograph slides and the skill he developed enabled him to make micrometer scales and graticules.
For his microphotographs Dancer photographed well known paintings of landscapes, portraits, etc. down to about 1mm square, the novelty being that a microscope should be used to see them in larger size. After he commenced making them the idea caught the public interest and several firms set up to produce and market microphotograph slides in large numbers and it wasn't long before rings and other jewellery became fashionable with the microphotograph mounted beneath a small magnifying lens. Pencils were also produced with a small lens over a picture at the end.
Dancer sold some 500 microphotograph slides, many of which were of well known paintings in art galleries. Particularly popular were slides of members of the Victorian Royal Family, of Emperor Napoleon, and of an 1858 20 banknote. These old slides generally bore on their label the initials of their maker, J.B.D. for John Benjamin Dancer, J.S. or J.H.S. for Joseph Herbert Sidebotham, and H.W. for Herbert Watkins. Some old microphotograph slides bear the initials E.W.H. and it is not known for certain whose name these initials represent, though it is believed that they represent the name of W. Hislop. If you have an old microphoto-graph slide bearing the initials J.B.D., J.S., H.W. or E.W.H., take care of it, as such slides are now collector's items.
During the early 1900's microphotographs became regarded as a money making novelty, and the public soon tired of the novelty. Many scientific men regarded the whole concept as frivolous. Henry Garnett of Flatters & Garnett is on record as having said to the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society in 1928 "the fashion for microphotographs had largely died out". This, however, was at the very time when microphotography for business purposes was in its infancy and is in fact very much in use today to fulfil modern day requirements. Whole volumes of books, manuscripts and documents all over the world have been microphotographed to save storage space. Old census returns, old probate records, etc. available for public inspection at the various local Records Offices are all on microfilm.
Anyone who has visited a Records Office to inspect old records will be familiar with putting a roll of microfilm on the viewing machine. Though these 35mm reels are hardly "micro" compared to the work that Dancer initiated, they are nevertheless a direct result of his work.
To quote Mr. L.L.Ardern, then Librarian of the Manchester College of Technology, writing about Dancer in 1956, "The librarian looks to Dancer's invention to help control the problem of library growth caused by the immense output of recorded information."
During the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870's when Paris was besieged by the Germans, the French sent messages on microfilm by carrier pigeon over the German lines. By the time of the 1939-1945 war, fine grain film had been improved to such an extent that it enabled photographs of documents to be reduced even further so as to be capable of being hidden under a typewriter size full stop, and these became known as a micro-dot.
By the mid 1800's the magic lantern had been invented but illumination was by oil lamp, very inefficient except in small rooms. Dancer greatly improved the illumination but all the items depicted on the slides for the magic lantern were hand drawn and painted and the magic lantern was looked upon as a toy. A few years were to pass before Dancer made the first photographic positives as lantern slides, and the magic lantern then got better recognition for the useful aid it proved to be.
Those who holiday in Spain may have seen the large spectacular coloured fountain in Barcelona, or its twin on the promenade at Salou, which operate to their main effectiveness when darkness falls. Many jets of brightly coloured water shoot up in the air, being replaced by other jets reaching different heights, all lit from below by lights constantly changing colours and controlled by an electrical keyboard which was invented by Dancer in the 1850's.
He gave many lectures and produced various scientific papers. One of his inventions was the stereoscopic camera, a wood camera with brass fittings and with two lenses set with their centres approx. 3" apart, which he invented in 1853 and perfected in 1856. Christies sold one of these at auction in 1977 for 21,000. His other accomplishments were wide ranging and, to mention only a few, included improvements in the construction of Daniell liquid type batteries, the spring make and break contact used in electrical apparatus, the electro magnet, electric shock machine, experiments with ozone gas, the photographic micrometer, instruments for measuring the accuracy of rifle barrels, astronomical, meteorological, surveying and other instruments for many leading scientists including his friend Dr.J.P.Joule, whose name was given to the joule, the standard international unit of energy. Look on a Kelloggs' Cornflakes packet and you will see "Energy 1650 kJ" (kilojoules).
In 1870, when he was only 58 years of age, he started to suffer from the eye disease Glaucoma and his eyesight began to fail. In the following few years he had three eye operations but they did not help him very much and by 1878 he had to give up his business activities because of ill health and poor vision. He lived another nine years until he was aged 75 and it was a most cruel turn of fate that decreed that so active and gifted a man as J.B. Dancer should spend his last years blind and in comparative obscurity.
Dancer had taught his two daughters, Eleanor Elizabeth and Catherine, the process of making microphotographs and they took over the running of the business, trading under the name of E.E.Dancer & Co. for some 25 years until 1900 when the entire stock and the process of producing quality microphotographs were sold to a Mr. Richard Suter, a London microscope dealer.
About 1885 Dancer dictated his autobiography to his 16 years old granddaughter, Elizabeth, who wrote out the dictated autobio-graphy in a school exercise book, devoid of any punctuation and with very few headings. For over 70 years the manuscript was never published and whilst there was a record of it having been made, in microscopical and photographic societies it had been thought that it had been lost over the years. It was only by a very remote chance that the manuscript came to light in 1958 because of the Manchester Microscopical Society displaying exhibits of Dancer microphotographs, slides and instruments at one of the Society's public exhibitions. The exhibition was mentioned on the radio and was heard by Miss E.C. Wilkie, the daughter of Elizabeth. Miss Wilkie attended the exhibition being held in honour of her great-grandfather, and she mentioned that she had the original manuscript. With her assistance, one of the Society's members, Mr.W.Browning, arranged for the manuscript to be published by the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in Vol.107 of their Manchester Memoirs (unaltered except for the addition of punctuation and sub-headings), together with a selection of letters written to Dancer by some of his well known scientific correspondents and friends.
Two years later in 1960, over 70 years after Dancer's death, the National Microfilm Association of U.S.A. presented its Dancer Pioneer Medal to Miss Wilkie, with the undermentioned citation -
To John Benjamin Dancer, a man of strong character and immense energy; alert and practical, a skilled craftsman and manipulator; sympathetic, ever ready to help the youthful searcher, inventor of microphotography, the National Microfilm Association is proud to present this posthumous Medal of Meritorious Service to the microfilm industry.
Note: This article was written by Roy Winsby and was published in the newsletter of The Manchester Microscopical Society - Newsletter 15. It has been repoduced here through the kind permission of Roy Winsby.
References: (Copies are in the Society's library).
The Manchester Review, Spring 1956. page 339. J.B.Dancer by L.L.Ardern.
Manchester Memoirs, Vol.cvii (1964-65), No.9. The Autobiography of John Benjamin Dancer, F.R.A.S., dictated about 1885 when he has blind to his granddaughter. (A 28 page booklet).
British Journal of Photography, 16th Feb.1973, page 138.
John Benjamin Dancer, Originator of Microphotography. British Journal of Photography, 29th May 1981, page 557.
Microphotographic Slides and their Origin by Clive Kocher.