These days anyone with a cheap point-and-shoot camera or even a cell phone can snap a picture of the Moon (although I highly advise using at least an entry-level dSLR) but there was a time when that wasn’t the case. Go back to the late 1830s, when photography was in its infancy and methods for capturing light and shadows for posterity were on the cutting edge of invention, and the Moon was an elusive target for even the most skilled practitioners. But, in March of 1840, John William Draper changed that with his lunar “portrait”—the world’s first true astrophoto.
“This is the first time that anything like a distinct representation of the moon’s surface has been obtained.”
— Contemporary description of Draper’s 1840 daguerreotype
The illustrious John W. Draper was a British-born chemist, physicist, philosopher, and professor at New York University (and also the founder of the American Chemical Society). Fascinated with the chemistry of light-sensitive materials, Draper learned of the process created by Louis Daguerre in September of 1839 after the news arrived in America via British steamship. He set to work attempting to improve on Daguerre’s photographic methods, coming up with ways to increase plate sensitivity and reduce exposure times, which not only helped the process of portraiture but also allowed him to begin capturing images of the Moon.
Over the winter of 1839–1840 Draper tried to make daguerreotypes of the Moon from his rooftop observatory at NYU. Like Daguerre before him the images were unsuccessful, coming out either underexposed or, at best, blurry blobs of light in a murky background. But in the spring of 1840 Draper was finally able confirm success, confidently announcing to the New York Lyceum of Natural History (which would later become the Academy of Sciences) on March 23, 1840 that he had obtained a focused image of the Moon.
If you try to do a web search on Draper’s first photograph of the Moon you may (i.e., you will) get some confusing results, and for good reason—the dates and images have been often mislabeled and many of Draper’s original daguerreotypes were lost in an 1865 fire at New York University. I did some research and I’ll attempt to clear some of this up:
The picture above—one most typically used to show Draper’s achievement—is a photograph of a daguerreotype that was by all best accounts made by Draper on the night of March 26, 1840, three days after his historic announcement of photographic success. The extensively-degraded plate shows part of a vertically “flipped” last-quarter Moon—so lunar south is near the top—which would indicate his use of a device called a heliostat to keep light from the Moon focused on the plate during a long 20-minute exposure. It’s the same size as some of Draper’s earlier unsuccessful images and uses the same circular image area, and although it was later obtained from a used bookstore in Greenwich Village the daguerreotype was most likely made by Draper himself. (See the full-size image at its source here.)
So this was not Draper’s first successful Moon photo, but it very well may have been one of his first to be publicly displayed at the New York Lyceum on April 13, 1840 (and, obviously, one of the few that survive to this day.)
Over the following years John Draper continued to work on his lunar “portraits,” an endeavor picked up by his son Henry* who eventually built an observatory on the family property in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, later capturing one of the best-yet Moon photos on September 3, 1863 as well as the first photographic images of the Orion Nebula. (Read more here.)
There are a lot of misattributed 19th-century lunar photos out there on the Internet, with articles claiming one thing with images taken on different dates by different people. Daguerre himself reportedly captured a photo of the Moon on Jan. 2, 1839, but according to a contemporary it was unfocused and was lost in a fire shortly afterward. Daguerreotypes of the Moon were also captured in the 1850s by John A. Whipple, some of which are misattributed to John Draper, and then of course there’s the younger Draper whose work is sometimes mistaken for his father’s.
And then there’s the fact that the original first works are long lost, along with John Draper’s original NYU lab, observatory, and much of his research notes.
Regardless of on what particular night in March of 1840 Draper captured his lunar image it was still an amazing achievement to produce a picture of the Moon with what was essentially a handmade telescope attached to a wooden box with a plate coated with volatile chemicals stuck on the back (not to mention the poisonous mercury gas that was used to develop it!) Even Louis Daguerre himself failed to obtain surface details of the Moon in his early attempts, but the passionate Draper refused to give up until he got the results he wanted—which is why today he’s known as the first true astrophotographer.
*John’s son, doctor and astronomer Henry Draper, is honored with a crater on the Moon bearing the family name.