The first time the moon was photographed, March 26, 1840

The first photograph taken of the moon in 1840.
The first detailed photograph of the moon. Taken by John W. Draper from the rooftop observatory at New York University on the 26th March 1840. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Back in the day, you couldn’t just whip out a smartphone from your pocket and observe the moon in all its glory. You would have to personally know a buddy who could paint you a picture. That was until John Draper snapped this number in 1840, becoming widely regarded as the first ever detailed picture taken of the moon. Depicting a crescent backed onto a full circle, this breakthrough was a momentous occasion in viewing the moon and its details. Using daguerreotype (the first publicly available photography technique) and adding to the start of a whole brand of vernacular photography, this snap is an important cultural and scientific documentation.

Taken by a British-Born American scientist who was working at New York University at the time, Draper later founded the American Chemical Society. He was fascinated by the chemistry behind producing photographs, ultimately leading to a breakthrough in astrophotography. The picture looks like it’s missing from a 21st century MOMA exhibition, but it draws on historical techniques to depict one the very first notable photographs. Draper set out to try and improve on Daguerre’s breakthrough with photography by increasing plate sensitivity and reducing exposure times which provided valuable insights in portrait photography whilst allowing success in his snapping of the moon too. His advancement in the technique allowed visualisation of craters, mountains and valleys on the moon’s surface which previously couldn’t be captured. He would then go on to produce the world’s first portrait of a woman and the first photograph of the solar spectrum.

Draper notes in his lab book during the experiment, “This evening I exposed a prepared plate to the moonbeams which had been conveyed by a double convex lens”. He managed to capture this picture atop the NYU observatory using a wooden box with a telescope attached which had a plate on the back that used volatile and dangerous chemicals (notably Mercury, dangerous stuff!) . Draper continually failed, leading up to 1840, and whilst others tend to get attributed with wrongful glory, Draper was the first to provide a full detailed photograph of the moon. Indeed, he may have even managed to capture such an image earlier in 1839, but a blaze that engulfed some of New York University led to any evidence of such being destroyed. Despite this fire, he got back to work.

There lies controversy surrounding who was the first to produce a photo of the moon. Indeed, with anything in early photography it was a race to attain the best as quickly as possible. The father of photography, Louis Daguerre, and other early visionaries, notably Niepce, were all vying to attain astrophotography success. Many claim that others including the two just mentioned snapped photographs of the moon earlier than Draper. But Draper manages to successfully encapsulate detail like no other had done before. Despite this massive breakthrough, his contemporaries failed to garner any backing for his success. Infact, it would be Draper’s legacy which would cement him in the history books. His son, Henry Draper, went on to further the family’s photography success and make a name for himself. Further, John’s granddaughter, Antonia Maury, would go on to be a pivotal figure in female astronomy and be a figurehead in the movement. Her roots in astrology linked directly to her grandfather’s success with this famous shot of the moon. A true breakthrough in science and photography at the time.


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