News / Science & Technology

Smithsonian, Argonne Team Up to Save Earliest Known Photographs

Smithsonian, Argonne Team Up to Save Earliest Known Photographsi
X
August 15, 2013 7:39 PM
The introduction of the daguerreotype in the 19th century ushered in the era of modern photography. Instead of sitting long hours for an artist to paint a portrait, customers could sit for just a few minutes while their true likeness was captured in what is now known as a photograph. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, research scientists at the Smithsonian Institution are teaming up with physicists at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago to study these earliest known photographs, which are in danger of being lost forever.
Kane Farabaugh
The introduction of the daguerreotype in the 19th century ushered in the era of modern photography. Instead of sitting long hours for an artist to paint a portrait, customers could sit for just a few minutes while their true likeness was captured in what is now known as a photograph. Research scientists at the Smithsonian Institution are teaming up with physicists at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago to study these earliest known photographs, which are in danger of being lost forever.

The woman in the image most likely was in her late teens or early 20s when her likeness was preserved on this copper plate with finely polished silver in the mid-19th century.

Daniel Weinberg, of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, has handled many such daguerreotypes, which are popular with collectors and historians alike.

“It was the first time you could go into a studio and have your photograph taken, and you could put it up somewhere and show it off,” he said. “They’re luminous, and they’re almost three dimensional, and you almost want to step into one.”

19th century Americana

Weinberg also said daguerreotypes were one of a kind, not meant to be reproduced like current photographs. And although invented by a Frenchman - Louis Daguerre - they changed the American landscape in the mid-1800s.

“America really took off with the daguerreotype, and a vast majority of them were American,” said Weinberg.

“It spread like wildfire in the United States. There were hundreds of thousands of daguerreotypes made over a 20-year time span,” said Ed Vicenzi, research scientist at the Smithsonian Institution.

Many of the most important images now reside at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, including the one of a mysterious young woman that research scientist Vicenzi whimsically calls “Clara” - although her real name is unknown.

“We don’t know her name, her family, the state she’s from,” he said.

What Vicenzi does know is the image from the past is in danger of being lost in the future unless something is done to stop the breakdown of its microscopic chemical makeup.

“So daguerreotypes are actually made up of a bunch of nanoparticles on the surface that scatter the light and this is in some ways similar to the way technology devices are made today, so we’re also interested in what did 19th century photographers know about nanotechnology unwittingly,” he said.

Preserving history

Physicist Volker Rose is working with Vicenzi, at Argonne National Laboratory, by focusing the intense X-rays of Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source at fragments of the daguerreotype.

“Those objects are almost 200 years old, and they were made at a time when the concept of nanotechnology, even the word at that time, didn’t exist,” he said.

“We can focus those X-rays down to very small spot sizes. This allows us to look very deep into material, but also get a lot of information on a very small length scale,” said Rose.

“The technology that’s available at the Advanced Photon Source will allow me to study the very early stages of degradation of daguerreotype plates. They corrode over time, but we need to learn the chemical mechanisms in order to understand how we can preserve these objects for the future,” said Vicenzi.

Vicenzi hopes his efforts at Argonne will provide the answers historians, preservationists and collectors seek to guide them in saving these images of the past - so future generations can study, understand and appreciate first-hand what life was like in the 19th century.

You May Like

China May Be Biggest Winner From Ukraine Crisis

Missile sales, oil and gas shipments are among many areas that may drive Beijing and Moscow closer together in coming years More

Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power

Current foreign policy issues bring into focus challenges for US policymakers who are mindful of Americans' waning appetite for overseas military engagements More

SADC Meeting Lesotho Officials to Resolve Stalemate

Official says regional bloc has been engaged with leaders in Lesotho to resolve political disagreement that led to coup attempt More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: history buff
August 17, 2013 5:12 PM
This is a most interesting piece! My family owns daguerreotypes and I have always been fascinated by them. Good luck to the researchers.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid