Today anyone with a point-and-shoot camera or even a newer cell phone can snap a decent picture of the Moon but of course there was a time when that certainly wasn’t the case. Go back to the late 1830s, when photography was in its infancy and methods for capturing light and shadows on physical media were the cutting edge of innovation and the Moon was an enchanting but elusive target for even the most skilled practitioners. But in March of 1840 John William Draper changed that with his lunar portrait—the first success in astrophotography.
“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 his own astronomical images.
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 finally obtained a focused image of the Moon.
If you try to do a web search on Draper’s first photograph of the Moon you will get confusing results, and for good reason—the dates and images vary and are often mislabeled and many of Draper’s original daguerreotypes were lost during an 1866 fire at New York University, where he had an office as president of the Medical College.
A few years back I did some net-research in an attempt to clear this up.
The picture above—one most typically used to show Draper’s achievement—shows 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 and stained plate shows a last-quarter Moon, matching the phase that would have been visible on that particular day.
Although fine details are hard to make out due to the physical state of the plate, the Moon’s limb is in focus and just left of the upper center of the terminator you can just make out the curve of the Montes Appeninus which border the southeastern edge of Mare Imbrium.
This image required the use of a reflecting device called a heliostat to keep light from the Moon focused on the plate during a 20-minute exposure. As a result the original daguerreotype features a mirrored version of the Moon.
It’s the same size as some of Draper’s earlier unsuccessful images and uses the same circular-masked 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 from its source here.)
So this was not Draper’s first successful Moon image, 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 due to the fire the only one that managed to 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, and later captured one of the best-of-the-time 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 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 Henry Draper whose work is sometimes misattributed to his father.
And it doesn’t help the research process that the original first images now seem to be long lost, along with John Draper’s original NYU lab, observatory, and much of his research notes.
Digging a little further in an attempt to clarify some details mentioned above, I came across a 2021 article called Earth’s Moon 1840 by Dan Streible for NYU’s Orphan Film Symposium. It features more information on the provenance of the above image; apparently that degraded and water-stained image was a photograph taken in 1962 of a damaged daguerreotype that was found two years earlier “in the attic of Gould Memorial Library at NYU’s University Heights campus in the Bronx” and that by then the original no longer existed (which seems odd in so short a time to have been the case.) But, in the 1970s, “amateur astronomer John Pazmino bought a damaged daguerreotype in a Greenwich Village bookstore” which was later restored by the Smithsonian and is thought “very likely” to be an original daguerreotype made by John Draper in March 1840 and perhaps even the subject of the damaged photograph.
So the damaged photo on the left was taken of the plate on the right (and inverted in the process) but since the plate does exist (in a restored condition) it’s the oldest surviving photographic image of the Moon. Taken by John Draper. On or around March 26, 1840.
In fact if we (we being me) take the JPEG of the Smithsonian-restored daguerreotype and flip it and invert it, we get a very nice picture of the Moon. Nice work, Dr. Draper.
Regardless of on what particular night in 1840 Draper captured his actual first lunar image, it was an amazing achievement to capture a picture of the Moon with what was essentially a handmade telescope attached to a cigar-box camera box with a plate coated with volatile chemicals (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 astrophotographer.
Dr. John William Draper, D. Trombino; Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Vol. 90
Catchers of the Light by Stefan Hughes
Hastings Historical Society
Greenwich Village History
NYU’s Orphan Film Symposium by Dan Streible
*John’s son, doctor and astronomer Henry Draper, is honored with a crater on the Moon bearing the family name.
**This is an updated post from 2016
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