Solar-powered Photography: the Science & History of Sunprint® Kits

October 19, 2023

Can you take a photograph using paper and sunlight? If you’ve visited The Lawrence or our Discovery Store, you may already be a budding solar photographer! Sunprint® Kits, invented at the museum, are an excellent tool for nature photography, creating art, conducting solar experiments, and much more. For nearly 50 years, kids and families have used Sunprint paper to flex their creativity, capturing everything from leaves to action figures in signature white and blue images.

“The great thing about Sunprint Kits is that they’re so versatile.”

Seth Harthun, Business Director

Like many of our programs and learning materials, Sunprint Kits exemplify our national and international reach. We sell tens of thousands of Sunprint Kits each year to museum visitors and stores across the country and around the world, including museum gift shops as far away as South Korea. Each kit sold supports The Lawrence Hall of Science and contributes to our mission to inspire and engage through science discovery in ways that advance equity and opportunity.

“I loved playing with Sunprint Kits as a kid, and now they’re so fun to do with my own kids,” said one Sunprint fan. “Even the packaging is the same from back then! I put these in my kids’ ‘adventure packs’ during outings. They love picking up different things along hikes, then making their art when we stop for lunch.”

An early type of photography called cyanotype, invented in the 1840s by English scientist Sir John Herschel, is the basis for all this creativity. Herschel was attempting to detect invisible infrared and ultraviolet (UV) light when he discovered that paper dipped in a solution of iron salts and exposed to light resulted in a white image captured on dark blue paper. When dipped in certain chemicals, any part of the paper exposed to sunlight will pick up the signature blue color, while any covered areas will remain white.

For many years, cyanotype was primarily used for blueprints, as architects used the process to reproduce their drawings and designs quickly. In 1975, scientists and educators at The Lawrence Hall of Science saw the potential for cyanotype as a fun educational project. We improved upon the process by offering the first commercially available cyanotype paper pre-dipped in iron salts, thus removing a step. The Sunprint Kit was initially developed as a teaching tool, helping students and museum visitors learn about the Sun, its spectrum of light, and the science of photography. The creativity of kids and scientists soon turned Sunprints into all sorts of exciting projects.

This Sunprint is being made with a transparency of Charles Darwin’s handwriting and an animal skull.

“The great thing about Sunprint Kits is that they’re so versatile,” said Seth Harthun, The Lawrence’s Business Director. “My favorite thing to do with Sunprint paper is to mix objects with digital transfer images. Anything put onto transparency paper can create a Sunprint. A student and I printed Charles Darwin’s handwriting on a transparency and combined that with skulls and other objects to make some really cool prints.”

As you know, our volunteers and UC Berkeley student staff work hard to make the museum experience fun, educational, and memorable. Their enthusiasm and passion for science education also fuels Sunprint Kit assembly. When they’re not facilitating programs and exhibits or checking visitors in, our staff and volunteers often use their time to help prepare Sunprint Kits for sale or pack orders for shipping. Producing Sunprint Kits is also a popular activity for teams of corporate volunteers to make an impact in their community. Overall, our volunteers and student staff help produce between 80% and 90% of all Sunprint Kits sold.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as The Lawrence shifted to supporting online learning with projects like The Lawrence At Home, Sunprint assembly moved home as well. Our incredible staff and volunteers continued to support the Discovery Store, meeting in parking lots or stopping by the closed science center to pick up Sunprint materials or deliver completed kits ready for shipping.

“They were essential to keeping the Sunprint business going,” said Retail Manager Amy Kistner of our volunteers and staff. “They were the ones who continued to assemble Sunprints from home and pack boxes to make sure they get safely to destinations as far away as Lithuania or Australia.”

Along with Pheena the Fin Whale and our DNA sculpture, Sunprint Kits are one of the most recognizable and enduring symbols of The Lawrence. Since 1975, countless children and families have enjoyed creating art and conducting experiments with the Sun. Next time you pick up a Sunprint Kit from our Discovery Store, think of all the hard work that went into making that kit, and be proud to support a good cause!

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