These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World

Alli - September 15, 2021

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Tartan Ribbon, 1861, London, England. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Color Photograph

While the magic of photography ignited a sense of wonder in people around the world, there was one key component missing from the images: color. Most of us don’t see the world in black and white. So there was always the issue of not capturing the true essence of people, places and objects in an image. However, this changed in 1861. While Sir Isaac Newton pioneered the scientific understanding of color and light, it would be many years before this could be captured in photographs. Nearly 200 years later, in 1861, a young Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, conducted an experiment to show that, in fact, all colors can be made by an appropriate mixture of red, green and blue light. Many media enthusiasts may now know this to be the RGB spectrum.

According to the Science Media Museum, “Maxwell took three separate lantern slides of a tartan ribbon through red, green and blue filters. These slides were then projected through the same filters using three separate magic lanterns. When the three images were carefully superimposed on the screen, they combined to make a coloured image which was a recognisable reproduction of the original. While Maxwell’s experiments demonstrated clearly the basic principles of colour photography, in practice, his demonstration should not have worked at all. Although the physicist didn’t know it, the photographic emulsions that he used were insensitive to red light. Fortunately for Maxwell, the red cloth in the ribbon reflected ultraviolet light. This was invisible to the eye but did register on the emulsion.”

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
View of Agen, 1877, Agen, France. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest Colored Landscape Photograph

While the fundamental theory of color photography may have been understood, a practical method of color photography had not been achieved. Some experimenters pursued the idea of a direct method of colour reproduction which did not rely on mixing primary colours. In 1891 Gabriel Lippmann, a professor of physics at the Sorbonne, demonstrated a colour process which was based on the phenomenon of light interference—the interaction of light waves that produces the brilliant colours seen in soap bubbles. This process won Lippmann a Nobel Prize in 1908 and was marketed commercially for a short time around the turn of the century.

In this photograph of the French countryside in 1877, we can see the more rudimentary methods of color photography used. Photographer, Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron, was a pioneer in color photography and was the mastermind behind the process that created this photo. After writing an unpublished paper setting forth his basic concepts in 1862, he worked on developing practical processes for color photography on the three-color principle, using both additive and subtractive methods In 1868 he patented his ideas (French Patent No. 83061) and in 1869 he published them in Les couleurs en photographie, solution du problème. The discovery of dye sensitization by Hermann Wilhelm Vogel in 1873 greatly facilitated the initial three-color analysis on which all of Ducos de Hauron’s methods depended.


These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, 1878, Palo Alto, California, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First High-Speed Photographic Series

“The Horse in Motion” is a well known and groundbreaking series of images. It is a series of cabinet cards by Eadweard Muybridge, including six cards that each show a sequential series of six to twelve “automatic electro-photographs” depicting the movement of a horse. Muybridge shot the photographs in June 1878. An additional card reprinted the single image of the horse “Occident” trotting at high speed, which had previously been published by Muybridge in 1877.

The series became the first example of chronophotography, an early method to photographically record the passing of time, mainly used to document the different phases of locomotion for scientific study. It formed an important step in the development of motion pictures. To actually view this “photograph” the way it was meant to be viewed, you can find it on YouTube.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
First Photograph Of Lightning. WIkimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Photograph Of Lightning

As we know well from learning about early photography, exposure times were extremely long. If somebody blinked or moved, it could greatly change the quality of the image. However, this scientific and photographic feat changed everything. William Jennings was a Philadelphia photographer who experimented with color photography and artificial lightning. But he accomplished what many could not: catching lightning on camera. It’s amazing to see the oldest image of lightning.

Lightning happens when the negative charges (electrons) in the bottom of the cloud are attracted to the positive charges (protons) in the ground. Before 1882, lightning had never successfully been captured. Jennings made some significant modifications to its structure which enabled him to photograph lightning. Jennings’ addition of a yellow color filter to his camera, along with the development of the hot air balloon, made it possible for the adventurous photographer to snap sharp images of lightning. He was recognized for this achievement by receiving the Wetherill Medal in the 1930s.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Photograph of a tornado, 1884, Garnett, Kansas, US. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

First Photograph Of A Tornado

I don’t suppose anybody is too shocked to discover the first image of a tornado was captured in Kansas. After all, the state is known for its tumultuous weather both in meteorology and pop culture. In the Wizard of Oz, it was a tornado that swept poor Dorothy and Toto into a fantastical world. Kansas has seen an average of 88 tornadoes annually over the past 30 years, according to the weather service. However, the Sunflower State only recorded 17 in 2020, its lowest annual total in more than 40 years.

The first known photograph of a tornado was taken on April 26, 1884 in Anderson County, Kansas – 133 years ago, according to the Kansas Historical Society. The tornado’s slow progress allowed local fruit farmer and amateur photographer A.A. Adams time to assemble his cumbersome box camera and capture this singular image. Positioned near the United Presbyterian Church in Garnett, Adams was standing just 14 miles from the cyclone.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Roundhay Garden Scene by Louis Le Prince, 1888, Leeds, Great Britain. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Oldest/First “Moving Picture”

There is nothing more moving than seeing a moving picture. Today, our high quality cameras and technology allow our motion pictures to be larger than life with CGI, animation, and top of the line graphics. But when it first came out, the simplicity of the moving picture still captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world. We already saw the beginning of moving pictures with the debut of “The Horse in Motion”, but this took it a step further in the movie world.

The Roundhay Garden Scene, a short film shot by French inventor Louis Le Prince, is considered the earliest surviving motion picture by the Guiness Book of Records. Le Prince made the film using a single lens camera and Eastman’s paper film at 12 frames per second, and runs for 2.11 seconds. According to Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, it was filmed at Oakwood Grange, the home of Joseph and Sarah Whitley, in Roundhay, Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, England on October 14, 1888. You can see the actual moving picture on YouTube.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Unknown photographer, Burial site of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay, Jr., ca. 1847. Image courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Oldest Photographs of War

Born in 1811, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay, Jr., is both a huge part of history and an unknown part. While he may not necessarily have been a historical figure that many people know and admire, he accomplished a first after life. The first photographs of war were made in 1847, when an unknown American photographer produced a series of fifty daguerreotypes depicting scenes from the Mexican-American war in Saltillo, Mexico. This depicted the gravesite of Lt. Col. Henry Clay, Jr.

While his father, Henry Clay, Sr., was a prominent political figure and in opposition of Andrew Jackson. His son perished in the war and had not achieved the same amount of recognition his father had. The photographer that captured his gravesite allowed Clay, Jr., to live on in a more melancholy way. But this was definitely a major photographic moment in history.


These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Photograph of early life in Appalachia. Photograph by Margaret Morley, circa 1913. JSTOR.

Oldest Documented Life in Appalachia

As somebody who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, I need to begin this one with a proper teaching of how you pronounce it. It is my civic duty to inform all of you that if you go to the mountains of Appalachia and pronounce it “appa·lay·shuhn”, everybody will automatically know that you are not from there. The proper pronunciation is “a·puh·la·chn”. And any true born spirit from the Appalachian Mountains will make sure you know it. Now that you’ve been properly schooled on how to say it. Let’s get down to the actual topic.

Margaret Morley and William Barnhill were some of the earliest regional photographers in southern Appalachia. Morley published The Carolina Mountains as an eye opening look into the everyday lives of the people of Appalachia. She focused specifically on the Western North Carolina region. Her intention was to highlight their lives as straightforwardly and honestly as possible. She and Barnhill showed great passion for bringing what they saw in this region to the rest of the world. Although, the context of their lives and simplicity of spirit had many other Americans sensationalizing the Appalachian Mountains into many of the stereotypes we see today.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Taken on a 1975 Soviet mission to Venus. Courtesy of NSSDC.

Oldest photo of another planet’s surface

Pictured above is the oldest known photo of another planet’s surface. While it is blurry and difficult to see, it’s amazing that technology in the 1970s allowed humans to capture a clear image of another planet’s surface. Venera 9, was a Soviet uncrewed space mission to Venus. It consisted of an orbiter and a lander. It was launched on June 8, 1975, at 02:38:00 UTC and had a mass of 4,936 kilograms (10,882 lb). The orbiter was the first spacecraft to orbit Venus, while the lander was the first to return images from the surface of another planet.

The lander was encased in a spherical shell before landing to help protect it from the heat of entry as it slowed from 10.7 km/s to 150 m/s. This sphere was then separated with explosive bolts and a three-domed parachute was deployed which slowed the lander further to 50 m/s at an altitude of 63 km above the planet. It was the first spacecraft to return an image from the surface of another planet. Many of the instruments began working immediately after touchdown and the cameras were operational 2 minutes later. These instruments revealed a smooth surface with numerous stones. The lander measured a light level of 14,000 lux, similar to that of Earth in full daylight but no direct sunshine. They not only captured Venus for the first time, they’ll forever be known as supplying the world with the oldest image of another planet’s surface.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
Photo of three month old son. Russell A. Kirsch. Public Domain.

First digital image

We couldn’t talk about the history of the oldest known photographs and not highlight our more modern photographical feats. While not the same as some of the other “oldest” photos, this marked the dawning of a new photography age: digital images. Russell A. Kirsch is credited as the man who produced the first digital image in 1957. While working at the National Bureau of Standards, Kirsch and his team developed a digital image scanner. The first image scanned was of a photo of Kirsch’s three month old son, captured at one bit per pixel. It’s considered to be one of the 100 photographs that changed the world.

Kirsch and his colleagues at NBS, who had developed the nation’s first programmable computer, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC), created a rotating drum scanner and programming that allowed images to be fed into it. The first image scanned was a head-and-shoulders shot of Kirsch’s three-month-old son Walden. This was the first step into digitizing the art of photography.

These are the Oldest Surviving Photographs in the World
This is the first image file that was tested for uploading the internet. Silvio De Gennaro.

First photo to be published to the Internet

Once again, this one couldn’t be left off the list just because it isn’t the “oldest” photo in the world. The internet has revolutionized how we do everything. From how we communicate to how we share ideas, work, and memories, the internet is ever-growing. But at its infancy, it was not the same as it is now. There were new baby steps the internet needed to take. And one of them was testing out the capability of uploading photos.

On July 18, 1992, the first picture was uploaded on the web. The photo that captured four slickly dressed women was posted by Tim Burners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. The photo is of an all woman comedy group. The photograph was taken by Silvio de Gennaro as a promotional image for the women’s show. They had no idea that their small time act would make it into the history books as one of the most important mile stones for sharing media.


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