The Early American Daguerreotype

From Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation series

The Early American Daguerreotype

Cross-Currents in Art and Technology

By Sarah Kate Gillespie

The American daguerreotype as something completely new: a mechanical invention that produced an image, a hybrid of fine art and science and technology.





The American daguerreotype as something completely new: a mechanical invention that produced an image, a hybrid of fine art and science and technology.

The daguerreotype, invented in France, came to America in 1839. By 1851, this early photographic method had been improved by American daguerreotypists to such a degree that it was often referred to as “the American process.” The daguerreotype—now perhaps mostly associated with stiffly posed portraits of serious-visaged nineteenth-century personages—was an extremely detailed photographic image, produced though a complicated process involving a copper plate, light-sensitive chemicals, and mercury fumes. It was, as Sarah Kate Gillespie shows in this generously illustrated history, something wholly and remarkably new: a product of science and innovative technology that resulted in a visual object. It was a hybrid, with roots in both fine art and science, and it interacted in reciprocally formative ways with fine art, science, and technology.

Gillespie maps the evolution of the daguerreotype, as medium and as profession, from its introduction to the ascendancy of the “American process,” tracing its relationship to other fields and the professionalization of those fields. She does so by recounting the activities of a series of American daguerreotypists, including fine artists, scientists, and mechanical tinkerers. She describes, for example, experiments undertaken by Samuel F. B. Morse as he made the transition from artist to inventor; how artists made use of the daguerreotype, both borrowing conventions from fine art and establishing new ones for a new medium; the use of the daguerreotype in various sciences, particularly astronomy; and technological innovators who drew on their work in the mechanical arts.

By the 1860s, the daguerreotype had been supplanted by newer technologies. Its rise (and fall) represents an early instance of the ever-constant stream of emerging visual technologies.


$33.00 T ISBN: 9780262034104 232 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 69 halftones


  • Gillespie offers a sophisticated and lively treatment of the daguerreotype's first decade on the American strand. She deftly assesses the contributions to the process of such key early promoters and practitioners as Samuel F. B. Morse, John William Draper, and Robert Cornelius, and through them and others explores the complex intersection of the daguerreotype with art, science, and technology. She convincingly argues that the nascent photographic process contributed greatly to the definition or redefinition of each of these fields. Beautifully illustrated and elegantly written, it is a signal contribution to the field of American culture studies.

    Philip F. Gura

    William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  • This probing book excavates the history of the daguerreotype's first decade, when the medium's revolutionary promise, democratizing potential, and broad range of applications were tempered only by skepticism of its aesthetic qualities and trepidation regarding its mystical powers. Gillespie reveals how overlapping discourses of art, science, and technology shaped perceptions of the daguerreotype, illuminating the medium's complex polygenesis while conveying America's embrace of the technology as a sign of its providentially ordained progress.

    Peter John Brownlee

    Curator, Terra Foundation for American Art; editor of Samuel F. B. Morse's “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention

  • Just as we scrutinize old photographs of relatives to discern the contours of our family's history, so Sarah Kate Gillespie uses the evolution of the daguerreotype to make sense of the contours of art, technology, and science in pre–Civil War America. Her book is a masterful study of not only how culture defined this new photographic technology but also how the daguerreotype changed how antebellum Americans came to see their world.

    W. Bernard Carlson

    Joseph L. Vaughan Professor of Humanities, University of Virginia