In September 1839 the written accounts of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s new photographic process arrived in New York aboard the steam packet the British Queen. Samuel F. B. Morse, a Greenwich Village resident and NYU professor who previewed the daguerreotype process while in Paris, assigned Prosch, an instrument maker who also crafted Morse’s telegraph devices, to design for him a Daguerreotype camera. Professor John W. Draper, Morse’s colleague at the University also took interest in the public announcement of the daguerreotype process. Several years before accounts of Daguerre’s photographic work become public, Draper showed interest in the properties of light and actually used silver iodide and bromide to record its action. He thus quickly realized the importance of the invention of the daguerreotype, becoming one of the first Americans to try the process. As colleagues at NYU, Draper and Morse naturally became associated in their daguerreotype experiments, using the glassed-roof studio atop the University’s main building to try their hands in daguerreotypy. 1
During the winter of 1839 – 1840 Draper continued experimenting with the new photographic process and captured the first known photograph of the moon, launching the age of astronomical photography. For his first effort, Draper made the moon’s rays pass by the reflection of a heliostat through a lens four inches in diameter and fifteen feet in focus. His allotted exposure time of 30 minutes, however, proved too long, resulting in a partially blackened, overexposed plate. Draper succeeded in capturing another image of a seventeen-day-old moon by using two lenses and exposing the plate for 45 minutes, resulting in a more distinct, detailed daguerreotype of the moon’s surface. 2 Draper’s continuing efforts with astrophotography from his rooftop observatory at NYU’s main building resulted in his announcement of March 23, 1840 to the New York Lyceum of Natural History of his success in capturing a detailed, realistic view of the moon. Draper then returned to his observatory at NYU to continue his experiments in lunar photography. On March 26, he captured a mirror-reversed image of the last quarter Moon resulting in a highly detailed lunar daguerreotype. Draper then exhibited his moon daguerreotype at the New York Lyceum of Natural History on April 13 to considerable acclaim. 3 Illustrated below is the daguerreotype image believed to be the one Draper developed on March 26, 1840 and exhibited on April 13.
1. Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History 1839 – 1889 (New York: Dover Publications, 1964), p. 17-19.
2. Donald Fleming, John William Draper and the Religion of Science (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950). p. 25-27
3. The Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Vol. 90. Eighty-Ninth Session, 1979 December to 1980 October, edited by Colin A. Ronan.