This oldest photo of the moon was taken in 1840 on a Greenwich Village roof

The black and white image has deteriorated over the last 180 or so years, and it evokes something ghostly and supernatural. But this crescent shape amid light and shadow is considered the oldest surviving photo of the moon—taken in 1840 by an NYU professor who pioneered early photography.

The backstory of the photo begins in 1839. That’s when word reached New York City about the new photography process developed in France by Louis Daguerre.

John William Draper took a keen interest. Draper, 29, was a London-born chemistry and natural history professor and part of the faculty at the new college on Washington Square then known as the University of the City of New-York (now called NYU).

Draper too had experimented with capturing light, and he “quickly realized the importance of the invention of the daguerreotype, becoming one of the first Americans to try the process,” stated Off the Grid, the blog for the historic site Village Preservation.

The NYU building, since demolished, where the moon image was taken

Draper, as well as his NYU colleague Samuel Morse (a professor of painting before he invented the telegraph), began making daguerreotypes, according to Arthur Greenberg’s book, From Alchemy to Chemistry in Picture and Story, experimenting in the studio observatory on top of the university’s main building (above).

Draper’s first successful daguerreotype that survives is a copy of an image of his 33-year-old sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, below. But set his sights on something more extraordinary: a daguerreotype showing the surface of the moon.

Dorothy Catherine Draper, at about age 33

Though he may not have been the first person to capture an image of the moon, Draper’s moon shot, so to speak, is the oldest that survives (top image).

The photo at top was likely the specific one Draper perfected on March 26, 1840. “The extensively-degraded plate shows part of a vertically ‘flipped’ last-quarter Moon—so lunar south is near the top—which would indicate his use of a device called a heliostat to keep light from the Moon focused on the plate during a long 20-minute exposure,” according to the site Lights in the Dark by Jason Major.

John William Draper, decades after his first moon photos

Throughout his life, Draper racked up numerous achievements as a scientist, writer, philosopher, and physician, even cofounding NYU’s medical school. His moon image, however, didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

“Despite his accomplishment, Draper’s efforts received only modest recognition from his contemporaries; until recently his lunar daguerreotypes were believed to be lost,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has one of his moon daguerreotypes in its collection.

Like so many other notable 19th century New Yorkers, both Draper and his sister are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.

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8 Responses to “This oldest photo of the moon was taken in 1840 on a Greenwich Village roof”

  1. pontifikator Says:

    Anyone know when that NYU (main) building was demolished?

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Amazing!

  3. countrypaul Says:

    Great story for the winter solstice – thank you. (And Ms. Draper was a rather comely lass, as they might have said at the time.)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      And she lived to be 93! If you open the link to Green-Wood cemetery, I believe there is an illustration of her in old age.

  4. Ricky Says:

    Do we know where the “lost” daguerreotypes were found?

  5. petermv96 Says:

    Is there any record of how he was able to keep the moon in frame? I’ve looked a the moon through a telescope and it’s surprising how fast the moon moves across the sky! I’ll run inside to get a drink and I’ll come out minutes later and have to recenter it.

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