Cyanotype history

Sir John Herschel
Sir John Herschel
Photographer: Julia Margaret Cameron
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

The cyanotype process was best known as a method of copying architectural and engineering plans in the 20th century – the ‘blueprint’. The process was originally invented by John Herschel (1792-1871) in 1842 in England,  who was looking for a method to copy his astronomy notes.  The cyanotype process postdates the daguerreotype and calotype methods, but pre-dates the pioneering photographic methods of salt prints, albumen prints, ambrotypes and tintype processes.

Anna Atkins
Anna Atkins

In 1843 Anna Atkins (1799-1871) , an English botanist and photographer, produced the first photographically illustrated book by using 421 cyanotype illustrations of seaweeds. Atkins named them ‘shadowgraphs’. The book was called British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

The New York Public Library has a good collection of Anna Atkins botanical cyanotype prints from John Herschel’s copy of her book. Some of these can be seen on and the complete set on can be accessed from

Source: King, 1984. Say Cheese. Dodd Mead.


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