“Leggotype” Inventor, William Augustus Leggo. An inventor of photographic and telegraphy enhancements, William Augustus Leggo was a skilled engraver and publisher from Quebec. The new and wonderful world of photography was in its infancy in the mid-1800s, the power of pictures capturing the attention of viewers across the world. But there were problems with the new technology. The quality of images in newspapers and magazines was poor, making the striking photographs appear inadequate.
The man working to advance print quality was a Canadian, William Augustus Leggo. Born on January 25, 1830 in Quebec, Leggo was the son of an engraver and bookbinder. After attending Quebec High School, the young man apprenticed as an engraver under his father. “At the age of 17 he went to Boston, where he completed his apprenticeship with the engraver Cyrus A. Swett,” said Bernard Dansereau in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online’s entry, “Leggo, William Augustus.” On completion, Leggo and his three brothers worked in the family business.
Photography in Vogue in Mid-1800s
Initiating a partnership in 1863, Leggo joined two publishing men, George-Paschal Desbarats and Stewart Derbishire. Named Wm. A. Leggo and company, the firm provided services in lithography, engraving and electrotyping. Desbarats’ son, George-Édouard, entered the firm on the death of Derbishire, and became Leggo’s only remaining partner on the passing of George-Paschal. Leggo and Desbarats were in the printing business at an opportune time – photography was in vogue and pictures were a hot commodity. The expert engraver put his mind and skills to work and became an inventor.
Letterpress Printing and “Leggotyping”
Leggo received a patent on February 27, 1865 for his discovery of photomechanical reproduction methods. Named Leggotyping, “the technique consisted of creating a mould by exposing to light a photograph of the image covered with gelatine bichromate,” said Dansereau. “Using this plate, the artisan made a plaster mould from which was produced a copper plate that could be used for letterpress printing.” To advance their printing business, Leggo and Desbarats opened Leggo and Company in Montreal in January 1868.
Three years later, Desbarats began the newspaper/magazine “Canadian Illustrated News” (CIN) featuring abundant photographs using the Leggotype technique. The cover of the debut issue on October 30, 1869 featured an engraving of His Royal Highness Prince Albert. Leggotype photos were the staple in L’Opinion publique, the sister publication to CIN that began in 1870 under Desbarats.
Continuing to improve development and printing methods, Leggo devised “granulated photography.” The new method “involved exposing the negative of the photograph onto a lined or dotted screen. The tones of the photograph became blurred and the new plate could then be reproduced using letterpress printing,” stated Dansereau. The first granulated photography print appeared in “Canadian Illustrated News” on June 3, 1871.
Expanding into the United States, Leggo and Desbarats opened the Union Art Publishing Company in New York City in 1873. They immediately began issuing an illustrated daily publication titled “Daily Graphic,” unveiled on March 4th. Popular for sixteen years, the newspaper folded in 1889.
William Augustus Leggo’s Patents
Leggo was a man with a curious mind about many topics. While most of his developments were in printing and photography, his skills were also put to the invention of telegraphy and equipment.
A sampling of Patents awarded to William Augustus Leggo:
- 1863 “Leggotype,” Photomechanical reproduction
- 1869 An Improvement to a Photographic Camera
- 1869 Granular Photography
- 1870 Electro-Metallic Printing
- 1881 Leggo’s Automatic Telegraph Receiving Medium
- 1881 Leggo’s Telegraph Key
- 1887 Telegraphy Alphabet
The inventor also received a patent for a dirigible design.
Married, with four children – three daughters and one son – the Leggo family lived in Lachute, Quebec. Innovative inventor, printer and publisher, William Augustus Leggo died at the ripe old age of 85 on July 21, 1915. His practical inventions brought a fresh perspective to the printing, publishing and telegraphy industries in North America.