On this date in 1839, the French government released Louis Daguerre’s photographic process to the world—for free. The inventor began developing the process with partner Nicéphore Niépce in the early 1830s; it involved securing a thin, silver-plated copper sheet within a camera obscura and exposing the plate to the fumes from iodine crystals, which created a layer of light-sensitive silver iodide. When the photographer removed the camera's cover, the plate was exposed to light. In a darkroom, the plate would be developed with mercury fumes and fixed in a salt solution, creating a daguerreotype (Niépce died in 1833, so the process was named after Daguerre).
This process would be soon used around the world (except in England, where those who wanted to make daguerreotypes had to pay a hefty licensing fee; William Henry Fox Talbot, who created his photography process, called calotype, and patented it in 1841, would also sell licenses to use his method). Eventually, the daguerreotype process was replaced by the wet collodion process, but many photos—of political figures, of regular workers, of buildings and landmarks, of celestial bodies—would be frozen in time using Daguerre's method. Here are a few of them.
1. L’Atelier de l'artiste
The still life of plaster casts on a window ledge above, taken by Daguerre in 1837, is purportedly the first surviving image taken using his process.
2. Boulevard du Temple, Paris
Daguerre took this photo, which is believed to be the earliest to show a living person, in 1838. Because of the long exposure time (10 minutes or more), no moving traffic was captured. But two men—a shoe shiner and his customer—were still enough to leave a trace.
3. Robert Cornelius
Library of Congress
This self-portrait of photographer Robert Cornelius is believed to be the first daguerreotype taken in North America.
4. The Moon
5. Abraham Lincoln Portrait
Library of Congress
The earliest known photograph of America’s sixteenth president was a daguerreotype, taken when Lincoln was a 37 year old lawyer and Congressman-elect living in Springfield, Illinois.
6. The First News Photo
This French daguerreotype of an arrest in 1847 might be the first-ever news photograph.
7. Solar Eclipse Sequence
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
William and Frederick Langenheim weren’t the first photographers to capture a solar eclipse—that honor goes to a Russian photographer named Berkowski, who made the first photograph of a solar eclipse in 1851—but they did snap this eclipse, the first visible in North America since the invention of photography, on May 26, 1854. (The reason that the Moon travels from left to right in this eclipse, instead of from right to left, as it does in the Northern Hemisphere? All uncorrected daguerreotypes are reversed, as though looking in a mirror.) There was an eighth image, but as the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out, “In order to produce any kind of image at all, the Langenheims were forced to use the smallest cameras available, since smaller cameras require proportionally less light and there was virtually no available light when the disk of the new moon eclipsed the largest part of the sun. The missing eighth image was probably made on the smaller plate size and showed nothing at all—a total eclipse.”
8. Joseph Jenkins Roberts
The first and seventh president of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who emigrated there from Virginia in 1829. He was photographed in 1851 by Augustus Washington, an African American daguerreotypist who also emigrated to the country in 1853.