Monday, April 20, 2009

Opening April 26th “Milestones in Astronomy: The Drapers of Hastings”

Chasing the Moon, Part I

2009 is the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope to study the stars, and it has been declared an “International Year of Astronomy” by the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO. In honor of this initiative, we have dedicated part of our new exhibition to the Drapers, John William and his son Henry, and their contribution to celestial photography.

Though both were doctors by trade, father and son were also pioneer photographers. John William had trained as a chemist and was a contemporary of Louis Daguerre. As early as 1837, John William was experimenting with photography, and as soon as the details of Daguerre’s process for fixing images on silvered metal plates became known in 1839, John William constructed his own daguerreotype camera.

John William Draper (1811-1882), engraving from a photograph taken ca. 1864

One of Daguerre’s colleagues encouraged him to try photographing the moon. The resulting daguerreotype, taken in January of 1839, was “a clearly visible white impression.” Daguerre was unsatisfied with the picture, which he described as “fuzzy and low in detail.”

During the winter of 1839-40, John William Draper took a series of daguerreotypes of the moon, focusing the moon’s rays on the plate using a three-inch lens. In March of 1840, he displayed his photographs at a meeting of the Lyceum of Natural History in New York.

Daguerreotype of the moon taken by John William Draper at New York University in Manhattan. The original is in the archives of New York University (image used by permission).

“A portion of the figure was very distinct,” declared the minutes of the meeting, “but owing to the motion of the Moon, the greater part was confused. The time occupied was twenty minutes, and the size of the figure was about one inch in diameter. Daguerre had attempted the same thing but did not succeed. This is the first time that anything like a distinct representation of the moon’s surface has been obtained."

These daguerreotypes of the moon by Draper are generally considered to be the first successful photographs of any celestial object. The moon looks rather like an amoeba floating in the primordial ooze. This was partly due to the low light levels and the long exposure time needed for a daguerreotype.

Twenty years later, John William’s son, Henry, managed to take far superior photographs right here in Hastings. Check back with this blog on Thursday to find out how!

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