Robert Cornelius

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Robert Cornelius's self-portrait. The back reads, "The first light picture ever taken."[1]

Robert Cornelius (1809–1893) was an American pioneer of photography.

Born to a Dutch immigrant, Robert Cornelius attended private school as a youth, taking a particular interest in chemistry.[2] In 1831, he began working for his father specializing in silver plating and metal polishing. He became so well renowned for his work, that shortly after, Cornelius was approached by Joseph Saxton to create a silver plate for his daguerreotype of Central High School in Philadelphia. It was this meeting that sparked Cornelius's interest in photography.

With his own knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy, as well as the help of chemist Paul Beck Goddard, Cornelius attempted to perfect the daguerreotype. Around October 1839, Cornelius took a portrait of himself outside of the family store. The daguerreotype produced shows an off center portrait of a man with crossed arms and tousled hair. This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius is the first known photograph of a human in American history.[3]

Cornelius would operate two of the earliest photographic studios in the U.S. between 1841 and 1843, but as the popularity of photography grew and more photographers opened studios, Cornelius either lost interest or realized that he could make more money at the family gas and lighting company.

Cornelius retired from his family business in 1877.[4] Robert Cornelius died at his home in Frankford, Philadelphia on August 10, 1893.[5][4]


  1. ^ Meehan, Sean Ross (1 January 2008). Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman. University of Missouri Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-8262-6640-8. 
  2. ^ Barger, M. Susan and White, William B. (2000). The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science. JHU Press. p. 33. 
  3. ^ Hannavy, John (16 December 2013). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Routledge. p. 339. ISBN 978-1-135-87327-1. 
  4. ^ a b American Journal of Photography. Thos. H. McCollin & Company. 1893. p. 420. 
  5. ^ Society, American Philosophical (1893). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society. p. 242. 

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