The ‘world’s first’ stories have been shared online for years, they’re usually no more than just a picture with the claim that what it depicts is the first of it’s kind.
They rarely add any more information, even the most basic bit of background is left out and the questions from followers are ignored.
There are even social media accounts that post nothing but these claims, often not caring about if they are factual, only gathering as many followers and retweets as possible before they start posting sponsored messages or sell the account.
Don’t retweet or follow them.
This is one of those pictures, it claims to show the world’s first camera.
Whoever started this nonsense did it on purpose, there’s no way anyone could have created this ‘meme’ without knowing it wasn’t true.
It is a famous photo and the truth behind it is not that hard to figure out, but I reckon quite hard to avoid while making a ‘world’s first camera’ picture to share online.
So what are we looking at, what is this giant camera?
Yes, the camera is real, the photo is genuine.
This is the Mammoth camera invented by George R. Lawrence (1868-1938) who is in the photo, he is the one standing by the lens on the right.
Mr. Lawrence had been a bit of an inventor, besides running a portrait studio he also kept tinkering and improving photography technology.
He liked experimenting and took pictures by hanging his camera under kites, balloons and later my taking photos with planes.
In 1899/1900 he was asked to take a detailed and very impressive photo of the Alton Limited Train, owned by the Chicago & Alton Railway, an amazing train that offered a type of luxury travel that we can barely even imagine today.
But there was one problem, the train was long, it had 8 cars and using a regular old camera from a distance wouldn’t do it much justice, as you’d have to stand very far away for the train to even fit in the frame.
Mr. Lawrence explained to the Train manufacturers that the way to photograph it would involve taking lots of separate photos and then sticking them together, but the company was not impressed, their train was faultless, a perfect design, sticking photos together never quite worked out and just didn’t do the train justice.
They wanted the train in one, massive photo.
So our hero took two months to built a special, giant camera just for this one photo, it weighted 900 pounds (408kg), 1400 pounds (635kg) with the plateholder loaded.
It contained the largest photographic lenses ever made (up to that moment)
It took a 8’x4.5′ feet (243cm x 137cm) photo plate, had to be transported by train and set up by a team of men, it was rumoured to have cost over $5000, which would be over $160.000 today (calculations here)
After 2 and a half minutes of exposure the photo was taken, the result was amazing, a 96 inch (244cm) wide photo that showed the train off in perfect detail.
It made a huge impression on anyone who saw it, they even shipped a print to the Exposition Universelle in Paris but nobody believed it was real. the French Consul General was send to inspect the camera and affidavits had to be signed to convince the organisers it was an actual giant photo.
There’s no way for us to even comprehend the quality of this photograph or the impact it made on the people seeing it in 1900, as far as I know no full sized or even half decent quality version of the photo exists.
This is the only copy I could find;
It was a very impressive achievement, it’s a bit sad that the photo of his camera gets more attention than the photo he took that day.
A wonderful pamphlet was published shortly after the photo was made detailing the making of it, with impressive photos of the camera being put together, transported, etc.
You can download a PDF copy of the leaflet by visiting the Indiana Historical Society website here.
Just a few years later Mr. Lawrence got quite a lot of fame with his amazing air photo of San Francisco just days after the horrific earthquake of 1906.
Taken by hanging an 49 pound camera from several kites!
The result was a highly detailed massive photo like nobody had seen before, copies sold like hot cakes and this one photo made Mr. Lawrence a lot of money.
So we know two things, the picture of “world’s first camera” was made around 1900 and shows the photographing of a train in Chicago.
This means that ‘the Mammoth’ can’t be the world’s first camera because photography had been around for a while by then.
So, what was the first camera then?
As always that depends a bit on your definition of camera.
One could argue that they’ve been around since people started experimenting with the Camera Obscura after Aristotle first discovered the principle over 2000 years ago but photographic cameras that could be used to make actual photographs have been around since the early 1800s.
Lots of people were experimenting with photography and they all used cameras, many of those early models nothing more than that same Camera Obscura idea but with a sensitive plate installed to catch the image, an image that unfortunately always, very quickly faded away again.
I doubt anyone knows who made the very first camera that worked in this way and they were little more than boxes with a lens that didn’t do much.
It wasn’t till someone managed to fixate the photo and stop it from vanishing that, I think, we can start calling them proper photographic cameras.
And that was of course in 1822 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made the first photographic image of an engraving of Pope Pius VII, which was sadly lost.
But many people know the photo he took of in 1827, which survived to this day and as it doesn’t just record an old engraving but an actual view out of a window, it’s generally considered to be the first (surviving) photograph.
Which means that the camera Niépce used in those early days and that is now on display at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce could be the world’s first camera, IF it is the one he used to make the world’s first (surviving) photo with and IF we decide that a camera is only a camera if it can be used to make a permanent photograph with.
If we decide that anything ever called a camera can technically be the “world’s first camera” then things get even more complicated as it comes from the Ancient Greek καμάρα which roughly means “anything with an arched cover, a covered carriage or boat, a vaulted chamber, a vault”.
Good luck finding the first one of that camera!
- The Ingenious Victorians: Weird and Wonderful Ideas from the Age of Innovation, by John Wade
- The Indiana Historical Society
- Musée Nicéphore Niépce
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