Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1026:
FIRST PHOTOS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1026.

Today, the camera fails to give us all we want. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Gail Buckland's book, First Photographs, poses the question, "What happened when we aimed cameras at new subjects for the first time?" This collection of old photos makes a stunning account of how we reacted then we could suddenly see all the things we'd never seen before.

She begins with a tinted photo of the king of Siam taken in the 1850s -- the same king whom Anna tutored. This is not Yul Brynner. This king, seated upon his throne and decked in extreme formal garb, wears the expression of a petulant child.

By 1860, we find the first aerial photos. It was hard to make a time exposure from an unsteady moving balloon, but here are the first views of European and American towns.

We know they were heady wine for the people below. Just before the first aerial photos, itinerant artists had been going from one midwestern American town to the next, making remarkably accurate aerial pictures from their own imaginations.

Of course flight was the stuff of so many famous firsts. Photography captured the Wrights' first flight, the first air-passenger service, the first airmail delivery, Otto Lilienthal's glider flights (before one killed him), even the first primitive American dirigible, built in California in 1869.

Another theme is the charnel house of death: a lovely dead girl in an open coffin, the first photos of death by famine, a hidden camera shot of Ruth Snyder dying in an early electric chair for murdering her husband, a pistol duel, a guillotining.

The outpouring reaches through and beyond the early 19th century. We see the first nude photo, the first Miss America, Peary at the North Pole, the flaming Hindenburg, and, at length, close-up photos of Mars's rocky red surface.

This record hints of all the things we've craved to see and never could: the inside of the atom, the center of the earth, the universe seen from outside it, and our own right elbow. Yet our huge craving to see -- over the heads of the crowd, inside the darkened room -- is not fulfilled at all.

In the end, cameras only whet that desire. They don't fulfill it, they feed it. Most inventions are things we must learn to want, after the fact. But ones that help us see are another story: the airplane, television, X-rays, and, of course, the camera, are all things we imagined and tried to invent for centuries. Now we begin to see the whole internal and external world on computer screens. And as we do, we still go away thirsty for more. For nothing marks the human species more than this unquenchable craving -- to see everything.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Buckland, B., First Photographs: People, Places, and Phenomena as Captured for the First Time by the Camera. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1980.

I am especially grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Library, for providing the source and suggesting that there was a story in it.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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