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

On this day (February 10) in the year 1855, Samuel F. B. Morse penned this letter to Marcus A. Root. The letter is cited in the title by Marcus A. Root, "The Camera and the Pencil; or the Heliographic Art" (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1864) pp.344-346. - - - - - (In his book, Root states his inquiry directed to Morse was as follows:) I mentioned, that I wrote to Professor Morse, as well as to Professor Draper. My letter to the former contained the following queries, viz.: 1st. When did you commence your (photographic) experiments? I was told by an Englishman (name lost), that your first successful effort was an impression of your coat hanging upon the wall. Is this the fact? 2d. How long was the time required to obtain this impression? 3d. Of what kind were the instruments employed by you? 4th. Who first followed you in your experiments? 5th. Who began the taking of portraits? 6th. Who made the first portrait in New York city? The professor's very obliging reply was as follows: POUGHKEEPSIE, Feb. 10th, 1855. My dear Sir:-- Yours of January 30th I found on my table, on my return to New York, after an absence of some days. I have been and am still much occupied, but will give you as satisfactory answers as I can, to your questions. To question 1st, I answer, that I was in Paris when Daguerre's discovery was announced in the winter of 1838-9. Early in the spring of 1839, I had the gratification of being invited by Daguerre to see his results in private. He had not then shown them, except to the Royal Family, to Arago, and to a few others. His process was then secret, awaiting the action of the Government, respecting the pension to be granted him in case he would publish his process. My letter, announcing the discovery and my examination of the results, was written to my brothers, the editors of the New York Observer, about the first week in March 1839, and was published by them, I think, in April following. This was the first knowledge of the discovery obtained by the American people. In July or August of the same year, I think, Daguerre received his pension, and the process was published. Some copies of the work were immediately sent to this country, one of which I received the latter part of August or September; and immediately I had made for me the apparatus from the description in the book. This, I find, answers questions first and third. To question 2d, I reply, that as soon as the apparatus was made, I commenced experimenting with it. The greatest obstacle I had to encounter was in the quality of the places. I obtained the common plated copper in coils at the hardware shops, which of course was very thinly coated with silver, and that impure. Still I was enabled to verify the truth of Daguerre's revelations. The first experiment, crowned with any success, was a view of the Unitarian Church, from the window on the staircase, from the third story of the New York City University. This, of course, was before the building of the New York Hotel. It was September, 1839. The time, if I recollect, in which the plate was exposed to the action of light in the camera, was about fifteen minutes. The instruments, chemicals, &c., were strictly in accordance with the directions in Daguerre' first book. To question 4th, I answer, that there were several person who immediately began experimenting. An English gentleman, whose name at present escapes me, but who is (I believe) now living in Mexico, obtained a copy of Daguerre's book, about the same time with myself. He commenced experimenting also. But an American, named Wolcott, was very successful with a modification of Daguerre's apparatus--substituting a metallic reflector for the lens. Previous, however, to Wolcott's experiments, my colleague and friend, Professor John W. Draper, of New York City University, was very successful in his investigations; and with him I was, for a time, engaged in attempting portraits. As to taking portraits, in answer to your 5th question, I would say, that in my intercourse with Daguerre, I specially conversed with him in regard to the practicability of taking portraits of living persons. I well remember that he expressed himself somewhat sceptical as to its practicability, only in consequence of the time necessary for the person to remain immovable. The time for taking an out-door view was from fifteen to twenty minutes; and this he considered too long a time for any one to remain sufficiently still for a successful result. No sooner, however, had I mastered the process of Daguerre, than I began to experiment with a view to accomplish this desirable result. I have now the fruits of these experiments, taken in September or the beginning of October, 1839. They are full-length portraits of my daughter, single, and also in group with some of her young friends. They were taken out of doors, on the roof of a building, in the full sun-light, and with the eyes closed. The time was from ten to twenty minutes. The following is a transcript of the daguerreotype alluded to. [ Wood-engraving illustration of two women (Fig. 6.) ] As the eyes in the daguerreotype, from which the above engraving is copied, were tolerably well defined, we presume, that, at the taking, they were open a part of the time, and a part of the time closed. Therefore we represent them as open. About the same time, Professor Draper was successful in taking portraits; though whether he or myself took the first portrait, I cannot say. Soon after, we commenced together taking portraits; causing a glass building to be constructed for that purpose on the roof of the University. As our experiments had put us to considerable expense, we made a charge to those who sat to us, to defray this expense. To the 6th question, the foregoing is, to some extent, an answer. But Professor Draper's other duties calling him away from the experiments, except as to their bearing on some philosophical investigations, which he pursued with great ingenuity and success, I was left to pursue the artistic results of the process, as more in accordance with my own profession. My expenses had been great, and for some time (five or six months), I pursued the taking of portraits by the daguerreotype, as a means of reimbursing these expenses. After this object had been attained, I abandoned the practice to give my exclusive attention to the telegraph, which required my whole time. I have thus give you a hasty reminiscence, which, I hope, may serve your purpose. Respectfully, your obedient servant, M. A. Root, Esq., SAMUEL F. B. MORSE. Philadelphia -------------------------------------------------------------- 02-10-00

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