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Photographic Firsts


Philadelphia is famous for many things, including its inventors. Perhaps most famous of these is Ben Franklin. However, another Philadelphia inventor, Joseph Saxton, was responsible for creating one of the first photographs made in America. That photograph was taken in 1839 from the United States Mint (pictured above), where Saxton worked. In it he captured Central High School and a portion of the State Arsenal.

In 1839, photography was in its infancy. The first practical form of photography, the Daguerreotype, had been introduced to the world on January 7 of that same year. Created by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the Daguerreotype photograph was made when a copper plate coated with silver iodide was exposed to light. The silver iodide darkened when exposed to the light, forming an image after the photograph was developed in mercury vapors.

Saxton made his photograph following Daguerre’s published instructions that October. He built a camera using a cigar box and a glass lens, and heated the mercury to develop the picture in an iron spoon. A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker at Juniper and Chestnut Streets stands at the location at which the photograph was taken. The daguerreotype itself is in the possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Daguerreotype, however was a direct positive image. The image it produced was similar to the reflection a person would see when looking into a mirror. Because photography was still in its experimental stages at the time, many other methods for producing photographic images followed the introduction of Daguerre’s process. Most notably was the invention of a negative-positive process for making photographs which was first patented by William Talbot in 1841. This invention led to other negative-positive processes which created the glass plate negatives, lantern slides, and film negatives which were used by the City of Philadelphia to make the photographs that are digitized and displayed on PhillyHistory today.