Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Walter Osborne (1828–1902)

by Jean Gittins

This article was published:

John Walter Osborne (1828-1902), inventor, was born on 20 February 1828 in Ireland. Well educated in literature and the classics, he also experimented in electrical phenomena and invented a vibratory apparatus for relieving sufferers of nervous diseases. Listed as an engineer he sailed from Queenstown with his 21-year-old wife Anne in the Peru and arrived at Melbourne on Christmas Day 1852. On 1 March 1858 he joined the Magnetic Survey Department at a salary of £180 under the director, Dr George Neumayer, who had established an observatory in Melbourne. On 1 March 1859 Osborne was appointed photolithographer in the Survey Department by the governor-in-council at a salary of £300 but continued his duties at the observatory. On 1 September his appointment to the civil service became permanent.

The laborious work involved in making reduced plans of large maps caused difficulty in meeting the Survey Department's demand for land. On 1 August Osborne had begun to investigate the problem of transferring plans from a photographic negative directly on the lithographic stone. Encouraged in the project by Neumayer, Osborne arranged for a colleague to take over some of his work so that he could devote more time to experiment at the department. On 25 August he arrived at a solution to the problem: employing his process, reduced plans of 'country lots, parishes of Ravenswood and Mandurang', were printed and sold to the public on 3 September at 1s. each. With the new method, preparation was cut from six days to three hours; his discovery made photolithography commercially feasible and had an immense effect on the printing industry.

Osborne's process, which he immediately patented for Victoria, was the transfer of the image by a chemically-prepared negative imprinted by steam pressure directly on the lithographic stone. The Victorian government was ceded its free use. He was admitted a member of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria on 14 September. On the 17th he sent an account of his process to a friend in Ireland but was told that it had been anticipated in Europe. A later account in the London Photographic Journal was published in April 1860. At the Philosophical Institute on 30 November 1859 he had read a paper; it was illustrated with a map, the 1000th reduced copy of the original. An official description of the process was sent to England in May 1860.

Although accepted as an advance by technical circles in Europe Osborne's discovery was opposed by local lithographic draftsmen, engravers and even photographers, fearful of ruin to their callings. An independent board, appointed by the government in August to determine the originality and merits of the invention, recommended an immediate increase in Osborne's salary and, contingent upon the free use of the process being ceded in perpetuity to the Victorian government, he was granted £1000 in compensation.

In March Osborne was elected to the Council of the Royal Society of Victoria and in October appointed member of a committee to advise on the introduction of new animals and agricultural seeds into the colonies. He left Victoria in March 1862 to exploit his invention in Europe but found it already patented and in use. He went to the United States, where the rights for his process were secured by the American Photolithographic Co., for which he appears to have worked in New York and Washington D.C. His many inventions attracted the attention of the Patent Office and he was employed for years by a firm of patent attorneys as an expert. He moved to San José, California, and drawn by the literary and scientific atmosphere at Stanford University retired to Palo Alto. He died there on 20 November 1902 of emphysema and was buried in Oak Hill cemetery. He was survived by his wife but had no children. News of his death reached Melbourne on 21 February 1903.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Kenyon, ‘Photo-lithography—a Victorian invention’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 11 (1926-28)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1860-61, 3 (11)
  • San Jose Daily Mercury, 21 Nov 1902
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Feb 1903
  • private information.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'Osborne, John Walter (1828–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 February, 1828


20 November, 1902 (aged 74)
Palo Alto, California, United States of America

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