Gabriel Jonas Lippmann was born on August 16, 1845, in Hollerich, Luxembourg. A few years later his family moved to Paris, France, where he spent the majority of his life. As a young child, he was taught at home. In 1858, Lippmann entered the Lycée Napoleon and a decade later attended École Normale.
He was a Physics professor at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, France. As a professor, Lippmann had little success in his research until 1873, when he was sent to Germany on a government mission to study new methods of education in science. Lippmann returned to France in 1878 to teach at the College of Sciences of Paris. In 1883, he was appointed professor of mathematical physics at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. In 1886, Lippmann advanced to the position of professor of experimental physics and was selected Director of the Research Laboratory. He remained at the University until his death.
Lippman is most remembered for his advances in optics and electricity. He is credited for inventing such scientific instruments as the capillarity electrometer (1872). While doing research in Germany, Lippmann studied the relationship between electrical and capillary phenomenon, which led to the creation of the sensitive electrometer. The instrument can detect the electric currents by the movement of mercury in the apparatus’s tube.
Lippmann also invented the scientific instrument, the coelostat, which permitted long-exposure photographs of the sky. This device helped astronomers take photographs of single stars, by isolating the star from its surroundings. The coelostat has been exceptionally useful during solar and lunar eclipses.
By 1886, he had developed the theory for the photographic reproduction of color. After years of experiments in 1891 and 1893, Lippmann presented his research and theory to the Academy of Sciences. The process utilized light from the sun and produced photographs from images’ color wavelengths. The procedure was based on interference, the joining of various light waves arriving concurrently at the same point. Since this was a direct method of color photography, the process tended to be slow and no copies of the original photograph could be made. In 1894, he published the theory of reproducing color. This color-photography process later became called the Lippmann process.
In 1908, Lippmann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for reproducing colors photographically based on the phenomenon of interference.” In 1883, he was elected to the Academy of Sciences and nominated as president in 1912. He was also a member of the Royal Society of London and the Bureau des Longitudes.
Lippmann died at sea on July 13, 1921, returning to France from a trip to Canada.