Skip to main content

“A Very Good Specimen Of The Daguerreotype”

July 2024
2min read

The story behind the recently rediscovered picture that proved to the world that the human face could be photographed

Everyone knows that the age of photography was born in France when Louis Daguerre developed a way to fix sunlight on a plate. Not quite so familiar, however, is the fact that Daguerre’s first attempts required nearly as much time to record a scene as an artist would have needed to paint it. It took two ingenious Philadelphians to perfect the process to a point where it could record a human face—and the remarkable picture on the opposite page documents their triumph.

Daguerre made his great discovery in 1837 hut did not release the news for two years. When word of it finally got across the Atlantic, it created quite a stir. Even before precise details were available here, young Americans were trying to make their own images. Among them was Robert Cornelius, a thirty-year-old lamp maker who became interested in photography when asked to manufacture equipment for the new cameras. While engaged in this work, he met Dr. Paul Beck Goddard, a chemist at the University of Pennsylvania. The two men quickly became friends, drawn together by their mutual interest in solving a baffling problem.

Daguerre’s original process demanded exposures of up to an hour in bright sunlight. This was fine for landscapes and still lifes, but it made portraiture impossible: no sitter could endure posing motionless and unblinking, for anywhere near that long.

Working in his laboratory at home, Coddard found that by exposing the plate, already sensitized with iodine, to the vapor of bromine, exposure time could be cut to a minute or less.

Goddard kept his formula a secret from everyone except Cornelius, who, sometime in the late autumn of 1839, set about experimenting with a crude camera he had built himself. With it, he recalled years later, “I made the first likeness oi myself, and another of some of my children, in the open yard of my dwelling, sunlight bright upon us. The daguerreotype of his children vanished long ago, but his picture of himself (left) survives and is now considered the earliest known photographic portrait.

Nonetheless, Cornelius and his collaborator were not satisfied. “You will notice,” the photographer wrote, “the figure is not in the center of the plate. The reason for it is I was alone, and ran in front of the camera after preparing it for the picture, and I could not know...that I was not in the center.”

The American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in America, was the forum before which to lay their discovery: from its founding in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin it had been devoted to “the promotion of useful knowledge. But the partners wanted the most perfect portrait possible to impress the members. And so Goddard himself posed formally before Cornelius’ camera, wearing an elegant silk cravat and fashionable waistcoat. The result—newly restored and reproduced here for the first time since it was made—was ceremoniously presented before thirty-one distinguished members on the evening of December 6, 1839.

Doubtless, Philadelphia society was suitably impressed, for Cornelius and Goddard went on to open the world s first photographic studio on February 16 of the following year. Although the studio prospered and Cornelius made still further improvements in the photographic process, he abruptly abandoned photography in 1843 to return to his father’s factory: gas had begun to light American homes and there was now sure to be more money in lighting fixtures than in picture making.

Goddard’s portrait was exhibited again before the society that year and then forgotten. And since the minutes of the 1839 meeting had recorded only that it was “a very good specimen of the Daguerreotype,” no one could even recall what its subject had been. For more than 140 years it lay anonymously in the society’s collections.


Scholarly inquiries about it yielded nothing. In 1938 the society librarian replied to one: “Many things have been tucked away in !inaccessible places. I am afraid that such is the case with the daguerreotype....I remember the old daguerreotype hanging on the wall of the library and noting that it was so faded that it was impossible to tell what it was.” Finally, on January 2, 1975, Murphy D. Smith, the manuscript librarian, found a small box of long-forgotten daguerreotypes on a shelf “upstairs.” One of them—badly tarnished but mounted in a handsome, pressed-brass frame—showed the full face of a bespectacled young man who quickly was identified from other portraits as Dr. Goddard. On the back was written “Dec. 6th 1839,” the date Cornelius and Goddard introduced their process to the world.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.