Historical Markers
Robert Cornelius Historical Marker
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Robert Cornelius

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
8th and Ranstead Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
December 9, 1994

Behind the Marker

On September 10, 1839, the Great Western steamship docked in New York harbor. On board were copies of the August 23rd London Globe, containing reports describing the process that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had revealed to the world on August 19 to produce the world's first photographic images. At once numerous Americans tried to duplicate the procedure. The first daguerreotype (as the images were called) in the New World was produced on September 16 by D. W. Seager of New York, but it no longer exists. The oldest surviving one, taken by Joseph Saxton of Philadelphia about the 25th of that month, is a blurry image of Philadelphia Central High School.
A blurry photograph of the Philadelphia Central High school.
Daguerreotype of Philadelphia Central High School, September 25, 1839.

Which of the several pioneer American daguerreotypists who rushed into action took the first likeness of a human being sometime in October is open to debate. Who took the first good one is not. Early efforts by Samuel Finley Breese Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and others required the subject to remain in bright light for up to an hour. Closed eyes were necessary to avoid blindness. Chemist Paul Beck Goddard of the University of Pennsylvania discovered that the exposure of the daguerreotype's iodine-sensitized silver plate to vapor of bromine permitted realistic portraits to be taken with exposure times of under a minute. Goddard approached Robert Cornelius to put his discovery into effect.

Cornelius was the son of Christian Cornelius, a Dutch immigrant to Philadelphia in 1783. A well-to-do manufacturer of lamps and chandeliers, the elder Cornelius sent his son to private school where he took a special interest in chemistry. In 1831, he began to work for his father and specialized in silver-plating and metal polishing, a skill for which he was so sufficiently well-renowned, that in 1844, the newly-created Smithsonian Institute entrusted some of its early experiments to him. It was natural, then, for Joseph Saxton to approach Cornelius for the silver plate required for his daguerreotype of Central High School, and equally natural for Cornelius himself to become interested in the procedure.

Cornelius did not make much of his achievement. In fact, it only survived by chance. In 1864, Marcus Aurelius Root, one of several pupils Cornelius took, published The Camera and the Pencil, which provided much of the information on which all historians of early American photography rely. Root organized the exhibit on the history of photography at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where it was noticed by Julius Sachse, whose father had worked as a designer for Cornelius and who was the subject of one of the earliest daguerreotypes. Sachse, himself a noted Philadelphia photographer and future editor the American Journal of Photography, began taking an interest in Cornelius' work, interviewing him and other aged members of the American Philosophical Society and trying to get the story straight.
 A self photograph image of the photographer with his arms crossed and a stern look on his face.
Robert Cornelius, self portrait, 1839.

Shortly before he died in 1893, Cornelius told Sachse that he had taken portraits as early as October, 1839. No corroborating evidence was found until 1975, when Murphy D. Smith, librarian at the American Philosophical Society, found a photograph of Goddard dated on the back December 6, 1839, the date Cornelius and Goddard introduced their invention to the Society. Cornelius had earlier taken a self-portrait, but because it was off-center he had Goddard pose for another for presentation to America's leading learned Society.

Some thirty early daguerreotypes, of higher quality and greater quantity than any other pioneers, by Cornelius have survived. Most are portraits of Philadelphia notables, one is of Market Street outside Cornelius' studios, but the two most interesting are of Cornelius himself and Martin Hans Boye, taken in December, 1843, showing them performing chemical experiments.

Cornelius operated two photographic studios, both located at Eighth and Market Streets, between 1839 and 1843. But then as professional studios mushroomed, he either lost interest or realized he could make much more money running his gas and lighting company. He did so for the next half-century, supplying much of the illumination for Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exposition, and dying aged eighty-four as a leading citizen of Philadelphia. But he seems to have only taken two more pictures for the rest of his life, of an unidentified man in 1846, and of Captain and future Congressman Charles John Biddle, in his Mexican War uniform, in 1847. During and after the Civil War, photography became both an important art form and big business in the United States. Once again, Pennsylvania led the way.
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