The colonialist vision - according to which Mexicans were not capable of contributing to the development of science - has condemned to oblivion a large number of transcendental and world-first contributions, which should be part of the history of our society and make us feel proud.
However, they are completely unknown, and when mentioned they are illusory and somewhat fanciful, such as the invention of photography, which among its precursors is the Mexican José Manuel Herrera, who in a certain way was linked to the history of San Luis Potosí.
José Manuel Herrera was one of the students of the first generations of the Royal Seminary of Mining, where the Potosí students Pedro Rodríguez Guerrero and José Mariano Jiménez studied. Herrera was a student from 1798 to 1803; he did his practical training in Zacatecas and Catorce. According to the syllabus, he had to develop his thesis with the description and plan of the Mine of Catorce.
Herrera was born in Cadereita in 1782. He entered the seminary as an endowed student; he studied mathematics, physics, chemistry, and mineralogy with professors Andrés José Rodríguez, Francisco Antonio Bataller, Salvador Sein, Luis Lindner, and Andrés Manuel del Río. When he qualified as a mining expert, the Mining Court gave him detailed commissions, among which are the approach of the forge that was established in Coalcomán and others on recognition of mercury deposits. In these works, he discovered at least two new mineral species, one of which he proposed to his master Andrés del Río designate with the name of Herrería, a fluoride of silicon and zinc dyed by nickel silicate.
In 1833 the third establishment of public instruction was created, which would be of physical and mathematical sciences. This replaced the College of Mining, and the professor proposed in first place in the list of three candidates for the chemistry chair was José Manuel Herrera, whose job he obtained by competitive examination.
In 1830, Herrera took over the chair of chemistry when Manuel Cotero, a tenured professor and former student of the seminary who had been doing his internship in Catorce, died. Herrera was in charge of this subject for more than 20 years, until the day of his death.
José Manuel Herrera and photography
In this professorship, he carried out several activities, among them photography, which led him to solve the problem of image fixation at the same time, and independently of what was done by Louis Daguerre in Paris. For this reason, when the university was reinstated in 1854, it called him to its bosom to gird his forehead with the tassel of a doctor of science, together with other personalities linked to the Seminary of Mining, such as Manuel Ruiz de Tejada and Joaquín de Mier y Terán.
The chemical procedure in photography included the use of mercury vapor -which was very toxic- and the subsequent use of silver iodide. The first images had been obtained several years earlier using pewter plates, an alloy of zinc, tin, and lead. The dark machine from which the photographic camera is derived was developed long before the procedure for fixing the optical image produced by chemical means was found.
Daguerre was a painter, and this hobby, coupled with his technical ability, led him to experiment with images and in particular with photography. He teamed up with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who was working on fixing images in the camera obscura. In 1827, while Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was achieving photographic fixation in Mexico, Herrera and Enrique Martínez were already experimenting.
Niépce died in 1833, and after some improvements to the system he and Daguerre had developed, Daguerre unveiled the invention in January 1839 at the Academy of Sciences in Paris. A few months later, a Daguerre's apparatus entered the port of Veracruz and with it, the first photograph taken in Mexico was taken, which is a panoramic view of the church of the convent of San Francisco and the Castle of San Juan de Ulua.
However, José Manuel Herrera took several photographs in his laboratory and experimented with image fixation. He took advantage of his experience in the handling of chemical substances for the study of mineral compounds, in particular the use of mercury vapors. The details of his system are unknown, but his contribution was recognized by the scientific community of the time, both for the new mineral species and for his pioneering experiments in image fixation.
Other notable Mexicans in the field
From 1840 onwards, the use of photography spread rapidly throughout the country, and this symbiosis between art and science was a recurrent theme in the bulk of the people who became involved in this art.
The interest in drawing led a large number of people during the 19th century to become interested in the technological improvements related to the capture of images -lithographs, daguerreotypes, or primitive photographic techniques- that were beginning to be developed at that time.
Juan María Balbontín is considered the introducer of these techniques in San Luis Potosí, an issue that although it has not been possible to confirm with more data, is feasible for the above mentioned because he installed a drawing academy in San Luis Potosí in 1836.
It was common for drawing academies to be associated with photographic studios, and there are many examples of this, such as the case of another character: Tomás de Cuellar, who lived in San Luis at the end of the 1860s. Balbontín maintained this interest for a long time and even set up a photographic studio in Mexico City in the 1850s.
José Manuel Herrera, illustrious Mexican, heir of the emancipation movement supported by the sons of the Seminary of Mining to form the new Mexican nation, had the glory of solving the problem of fixing images, at the same time and independently of those made by Niépce and Daguerre.
He died on March 5, 1856, his body was buried in the Pantheon of San Fernando with the attendance of students and professors of the Mining College.
Source: Universitarios Potosinos, Author: José Refugio Martínez Mendoza