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Ushering the Age of Astrophotography: John Draper’s Daguerreotype of the Moon

Mirror-reversed Image of the daguerreotype attributed to John W. Draper, believed to have been taken March 26, 1840 from his rooftop observatory at New York University (Source: Greenwich Village History)

I’m in a historical mood. The last post on the Linné Crater got me thinking about historic photographs of the moon. I was curious about the first photograph of the moon, and I discovered that the age of “astrophotography” was ushered in by the New York inventor, chemist, photographer, and all around renaissance man John William Draper. The advent of photography is attributed to the daguerreotype’s emergence in 1839. As a positive photographic process, daguerreotypists basically had one chance to capture the positive shot on the highly polished sensitized plate, unlike the negative-positive process where you could reproduce a single image from a negative ad nauseam. The daguerreotype process had a few major constraints, such as the challenge of taking a sharp clear shot of something moving (essentially undoable); the long exposure times, which is why people in daguerreotype portraits look really stiff and uncomfortable (they were often strapped in a contraption to prevent them from moving); with exposure times so long, lighting conditions had to be perfect (long exposure in highly lit spaces would result in overexposure); and the knowledge and the resources required to actually develop the shot (producing daguerreotypes was a challenging and expensive skill to master). With all of these contraints, imagine using this really new, just introduced photographic technology to take shots of something like the moon or the night sky full of stars. Obviously, trial and error was involved in the endeavor, but John Draper got lucky. While a bit overexposed because of the long-exposure time he used, you can make out the moon at center. With this photograph of the moon, Draper would usher in the age of astronomical photography.

Posted in Imaging, The Moon, Vintage Science Tagged with , , , ,