Although it is a little unclear as to who invented the iris diaphragm first, there are many candidates that could be credited with the concept. A little searching throws up names such as; Robert Hooke, John Henry Brown, and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – although it seems Charles Chevalier claims to of used an iris before Niépce.
What we do know, is that the first patent for an ‘improved’ device was awarded to C. C. Harrison (and Jos Schnitzer) in 1858. Up until then, it is suggested that previous designs were most likely either fixed sized apertures – that needed swapping to obscure the desired amount of light – or a flexible piece of rubber with a hole in it, which could be expanded by pushing a cone or tube against it.
You can read the patent here: https://patents.google.com/patent/US21470A/en
Additional names to throw in the ring, are: Daniele Barbaro, and Leonhard Euler.
To give some time scales to the history, here are our suspects listed chronologically:
Daniele Barbaro, 1514-1570
Robert Hooke, 1635-1703
Leonhard Euler, 1707-1783
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1765-1833
Charles Chevalier, 1804-1859
John Henry Brown, 1836-1903
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