Optography: The Macabre Science Of The 19th Century

In the 19th century, forensic scientists believed they had found a new way of catching murderers in optography. However, this technique was more than mysterious and questionable.
Optography: The Macabre Science of the 19th Century

The 19th century was one of the most interesting periods in contemporary history. Social movements, industrialization, increasing schooling and scientific progress led to many innovations and changes. In the course of these developments, numerous strange beliefs arose and many scientific experiments were carried out. This also included optography.

The people of the time had a great interest in the afterlife, were enthusiastic about Sherlock Holmes stories and also about Jack the Ripper, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time. It is therefore not surprising that some very unconventional forensic methods were developed during this period.

One of the best-known methods, optography, which was also very controversial, was the attempt to clear up particularly horrific crimes with the “most modern” means : the last images on the retina of a victim before his death should provide information about his killer.

Although this idea may seem quite absurd to us from today’s perspective, we should keep in mind that photography was very important at the end of the 18th century. People thought they were exotic, mysterious, and almost magical. It is therefore not surprising that some committed specialists decided to found a science based on photography.

Optography - glasses on a drawing

What is optography?

The word optography comes from the Greek and is made up of two terms: opto (sight, look) and grapho (writing). Scientists at Heidelberg University first used this term in 1877.

The physiology professor Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne coined this term. Initially, his interest in this topic was aroused by an original theory by his colleague Franz Christian Boll. He had found that there is a pigment in the retina that faded in the sun and became visible again in the dark.

This discovery formed the basis of numerous hypotheses and theories, all of which promised to revolutionize forensic science. Kühne was convinced that with the help of optography it was possible to uncover the identity of every murderer. This should be done through a simple analysis of the victim’s retina.

The last image the victim had before his death would be saved on the retina. This would then give the investigators valuable information about the perpetrator. All they had to do was remove the retina and store that final image in appropriate chemicals.

Brother Christopher Schiener was the first to examine and analyze an optogram (the name for these images) a hundred years earlier. While dissecting a frog, the monk discovered that the last image the frog saw before it died was “stored” in its retina. This discovery had profound and lasting effects on the monk and formed the basis for the development of the controversial practice of optography.

The cruelty of innovation

Although Kuehne certainly had good intentions, he nonetheless employed very dubious methods. The techniques he used in his studies were partly morally questionable, cruel and quite macabre. But Kühne did not seem to have any reservations about using it for his work, because he was convinced that optography would change the world.

Kühne carried out experiments with small frogs and rabbits. He forced her to look into extremely bright lights for a very long time and then beheaded her.

Shortly after their death, he removed their eyes and brought them into a darkened, closed room. There he cut the retinas from his eyes and put the pigment so obtained in a chemical solution to store it in.

If these experiments had not been reasonably successful, then certainly not so many of these atrocities would have been committed. Kühne carried out his best-known experiment with a rabbit. Allegedly, he managed to perfectly capture the last picture the animal had seen before it died. It was a picture of a window.

During his experiments with optography, Kühne killed countless animals. Today, public protest against such practices would not be long in coming. But so many important innovations and discoveries were made in medicine and biology in those days that few people thought about the cruelty to animals and their associated suffering.

Human test objects

Finally, in 1880, Kühne’s greatest dream came true. A prisoner who had been sentenced to death for murdering an entire family was beheaded in a local prison. Therefore, Kühne was able to conduct his investigations on a human retina for the first time.

Kühne claimed that the image his pigment analysis revealed showed the blade of a guillotine. As a result, some of his contemporaries questioned this result. In your opinion, there could also be something else in this picture. Ultimately, however, Kühne prevailed with his assessment.

A year later, Kühne published a book called Observations on the Anatomy and Physiology of the Reticulum . In this book he claimed that his experiments were successful. However, there is no scientific evidence to support his claims.

Optography - close up of an eye

The further development of optography

The lack of scientific evidence eventually led forensic scientists and police to stop using optography to solve crimes. However, this decision did not prevent numerous legends from developing around this theory, which sparked the imagination of the people for many years.

Numerous books, films and television series have been inspired by the myth of optography. Famous writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne incorporated these ideas into their stories. Well-known TV series such as Dr. Who, take up this topic.

We humans are fascinated by the macabre and cannot escape this attraction. Yet we are responsible for how we use our skills in a responsible and civilized manner. The future development of scientific research is in our hands. There are still countless unsolved scientific mysteries and we humans will not stop researching them.

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