go to HOME


  The research archive of Gary W. Ewer regarding the history of the daguerreotype

During the month of February in the year 1840, Alexander Coffman Ross took views of the Putnam Seminary. Ross's account of the incident, along with other memories of his involvement with the daguerreotype, is included in the article "Song Writers of Ohio: Alexander Coffman Ross" in the "Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications." (Columbus) Vol. 14 (1905) page 66-69: - - - - - - - - - "On the 29th day of August, 1839, Daguerre gave to the French government the process which was proclaimed by Professor Arago. It was not until the following November that I saw a notice of it, and then a newspaper account of the process fully described. I concluded to make an attempt to produce a picture, although I had no camera or silver plate. I procured two nice cigar boxes, cut one down so that it would slide into the other; Master Hill loaned me the object lens from his spy glass, the lens having a focal length of eighteen inches. "The lens was secured in a paper tube some six inches in length, and one end of this tube was fitted into the end of the largest cigar box, and a ground plate (which I also made) was fitted so as to slide in and out of this box; -- this was my camera. The silvered plate was my next consideration, and here I had to rely on my knowledge as a silversmith; I took a piece of planished copper about three by four inches, and having dissolved some nitrate of silver in distilled water, I applied the fluid with a broad hair pencil to the surface of the plate until it was darkened, and then immediately rubbed it over with bitartrate of potash, and repeated the process until I secured a good deposit of the silver. Contrary to instructions I had a 'buff' -- but more of this hereafter -- and finished up the plate until I had what silversmiths call a 'black polish.' The next thing was to coat the plate with iodine; for this I placed some iodine in the bottom of a saucer, took it into a dark room, and by the light of a tallow dip in one hand, holding the plate over the saucer with the other, I watched the process for about twenty minutes, when I found it coated to suit me; I afterwards learned that this first coating was admirably done. "Having progressed thus far, I set my camera out of the front window in the building now occupied by the Union Bank, then by Hill & Ross, and directed it to the Atheneum. The focus of the lens being so long, I could only take in about half the building. I focused the camera, took out the ground glass and inserted the prepared plate, .covering the end of the camera with my hat lest the light might get in at the sides. I let in the light when all was ready, and left it exposed for over twenty minutes; it was a bright sun light. At the end of the twenty minutes I carried camera and all into my darkened room, took out my plate and expected to be able to see some outline of the building. I was disappointed, but soon I remembered that there was another process to be gone through, and that I had neglected to make any preparation for it -- the plate must be exposed to the vapor of mercury. I soon got a spirit lamp, put a few drops of mercury in a tea cup, applied the lamp under the bottom of the cup and held my plate over it. Soon the fumes rose, and by the light of my tallow-dip, I watched the result in breathless anxiety; the picture began to appear and I witnessed my success with joy unspeakable. I called my wife and Master Hill and there in that little darkened room I showed them the first daguerreotype ever made in Ohio, or west of New York City, to my knowledge. "But my picture was not yet finished; the iodine had to he removed before I dare expose it to the light; the chemical agent to be used to remove the iodine was hyposulphate of soda, and that I could not obtain. I thought I would try salt water -- I made a strong solution in a tin dish, put the plate into it, warmed it over a spirit lamp, and in a short time found my picture clear. You may believe that I was not long in covering it with glass and showing it to my friends. It was noticed in the papers that day as the first daguerreotype ever made in Ohio. "In February, 1840, I took a view of the Putnam Seminary, which I kept for many years. During the summer of 1840 I did nothing at picture taking; the political storm was upon us, and every ordinary employment seemed as nothing. "In the winter of 1840-41, I got up a set of good instruments and. turned my attention to taking likenesses, which was then being experimented upon by Professor Draper, Morse, Walcott and Dr. Chilton. I met with many difficulties in not having an achromatic lens, which at that time was hard to get. I ordered two planoconvex lenses (four inches in diameter with combined focal length of eight inches) from Paris, for which I paid $60 to a friend in Philadelphia. In the non- achromatic lens there was a certain focus to get which was not only my difficulty, but a difficulty with all others as well. Light has two kinds of rays -- the chemical and luminous -- and these rays have different foci, the focus of the chemical rays being within that of the luminous. You can, by sight, adjust the camera to the focus of the luminous rays, but, to get a well defined picture you must get your plate into the focus of the chemical or actinic rays. This I did not know, and I worked many a day experimenting. 'I had no trouble in getting a picture, but it was always taken in the luminous focus and was indistinct. My wife would sit for me for ten and even fifteen minutes in the sun, still the picture was blurred. I could get no information on the subject; I was almost .in despair. One day I had been using some tea cups in my room, and had placed them on the edge of the window sill, just in front of where my wife sat. I had made some change and was trying to focus the camera on her, as usual. I could also see the cups, but not nearly so sharp in outline. I took the picture, developed it, and, to my great delight, found that the cup nearest the instrument was perfect, even showing the small flower on it. I felt as if I had made a great discovery, and to me it was one. After reflecting over the matter, I concluded to mark the tube of the camera as it was then adjusted. I then looked through the camera at the cup, and moved the tube until the cup was in the luminous focus, and then again marked the tube; the distance between the two marks thus made was about the one-eighth of an inch. "I then prepared a good plate, placed my wife again, got the luminous focus, then pushed the tube in one-eighth of an inch, took a picture and found it an excellent one. My delight was unbounded. I felt that I had overcome a great difficulty, and solved a mystery. I was not long in letting it be known, and many a poor devil did I help out of difficulty, without reward. Visitors from Springfield, Marietta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and other places, called upon me for information and got it free of charge. A Professor Garlick, however, insisted upon making some compensation, and gave me a splendidly bound book of steel engravings of the London Art Gallery. "I will finish this by stating that, except those made by myself, I never saw a daguerreotype until the fall of 1841. I was frequently told by persons who had seen other pictures, that mine were far superior to any they had seen, although not so sharp in the outline as those taken with the achromatic lens. Mine were strong and bold, and could be seen in any position. I received the first premium at the Mechanics' Institute exhibition at Cincinnati in June 1842. I will now refer back to the buff. I found the superiority of my pictures was altogether in the manner in which I polished my plates. "All others at the beginning followed Daguerre's process to the letter, and being a silversmith I knew that with the buff was the only possible way that a silver plate could be brought to a high polish, and as Daguerre said, 'the higher the polish the better.' I kept it no secret; it soon came into general use, and some few years after some one got out a patent for the buff wheel. If I could see you I could tell you many little incidents about the daguerreotype flattering to me, but I do not care to write them out." (All original errors of spelling/grammar maintained.) -------------------------------------------------------------- 02-04-99

Return to: DagNews