Meet the Man Behind the First Selfie Ever Taken — in 1839

Ever wonder who was responsible for the first selfie ever taken? Thanks to the folks over at Mashable, we have an answer for you.

In October or November 1839, one Robert Cornelius, then 30 years old, set up his camera at the back of his father’s shop in Philadelphia (below), removed the lens cap, ran into the frame and sat stock still for five minutes before running back and replacing the lens cap. In so doing, he had created what is believed to be the first photographic self-portrait.

The image seen here has been adjusted to bring out the features, but you can see the unaltered version on Mashable. first-selfie-ever-taken-Cornelius-portrait

So, what’s his story?

Cornelius attended a private school where he developed an interest in chemistry, but after that he started working with his father, who had once been a silversmith but later opened a lamp business (the “shop” mentioned in the excerpt above). During that time, Cornelius made a silver daguerreotype plate for the photographer Joseph Saxton, and this turned him on to photography. (The daguerreotype process was a popular photographic process where an image is placed on a bright mirror-like surface of metallic silver. You can read more on that below.)

Cornelius became a short-lived portrait photographer, eventually returning to his father’s lamp business. Here he was more successful, with numerous patents for lamp designs, and he turned the business into “the largest lighting company in America.” He died at age 84, in 1893, a very wealthy man.

The Daguerreotype Process

With help from Quinn Jacobson photography, we got some background on the process.

A daguerreotype photograph is made:

…on a copper plate that has a thin layer of pure silver (the precious metal) on it. The silver covered copper plate is placed over iodine and bromine to sensitize it. … The silver on the plate is converted to silver iodide and silver bromide – light sensitive material. A fume hood is required to do this.

After the plate is sensitized, it’s exposed in the camera. …

After exposure, the plate is developed over heated mercury, a “mercury pot”. … After development, the plate is fixed, or stabilized, in sodium thiosulfate (hypo). … Next, a quick wash in distilled water.

The final, and most difficult step, is gilding (with the precious metal gold and hypo).

For more detailed info, as well as learning how dangerous the process is, visit Quinn Jacobson photography.

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