Robert Cornelius

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Robert Cornelius
Cornelius's 1839 photograph of himself. The back reads, "The first light picture ever taken". The Cornelius portrait is the first known photographic portrait ever taken.[1]
Born(1809-03-01)March 1, 1809
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedAugust 10, 1893(1893-08-10) (aged 84)
Frankford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Resting placeLaurel Hill Cemetery
OccupationPhotographer, lamp manufacturer
Harriet Comly (m. 1832–1884)
(her death)
An 1839 daguerreotype of Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in which Robert Cornelius designed the silver photographic plate for a daguerreotype taken by Joseph Saxton. The image is claimed to be the oldest photograph taken in the U.S.

Robert Cornelius (/kɔːrˈnliəs/; March 1, 1809[2] – August 10, 1893) was an American pioneer of photography and a lamp manufacturer.

Early life and career[edit]

Cornelius was born in Philadelphia to Sarah Cornelius (born Soder) and Christian Cornelius. His father had immigrated from Amsterdam in 1783 and worked as a silversmith before opening a lamp manufacturing company.[3][4] Robert Cornelius attended private school as a youth, taking a particular interest in chemistry.[5] 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 the daguerrotype was invented, 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.[citation needed]

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, at age thirty, Cornelius took a self-portrait outside of the family store. The daguerreotype produced is an off-center portrait of a man with crossed arms and tousled hair. While Daguerre's photograph of the Boulevard du Temple, taken one year earlier, has since been discovered to incidentally include two human figures on the sidewalk (they just happened to stay motionless long enough to imprint on the exposure),[6][7] Cornelius' image – which required him to sit motionless for 10 to 15 minutes – is the oldest known intentional photographic portrait/self-portrait of a human.[8][9]

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.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Cornelius married Harriet Comly (sometimes spelled Comely) in 1832. They had eight children, three sons and five daughters.[10]

Later years and death[edit]

Cornelius retired from his family's business in 1877.[11] In his later years, he lived at his country home in Frankford, Philadelphia. Cornelius was also an elder at the Presbyterian Church, where he was a member for fifty years.[12] He died at his Frankford home on August 10, 1893.[11][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meehan, Sean Ross (January 1, 2008). Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman. University of Missouri Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-8262-6640-8.
  2. ^ American Journal of Photography, Volume 14. Thos. H. McCollin & Company. 1893. p. 420.
  3. ^ Hannavy, John, ed. (2013). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Routledge. p. 338. ISBN 1-135-87327-5.
  4. ^ Cornelius, Ellanor Frances (1926). History of the Cornelius Family in America: Historical, Genealogical, Biographical; Containing a History of the Name from 212 B.C. and a Complete Genealogical Chart from 1639 to 1926, with Affiliated Families in Direct Line. Also Short Stories and Biographical Sketches and Illustrations. p. 37.
  5. ^ Barger, M. Susan & White, William B. (2000). The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science. JHU Press. p. 33.
  6. ^ Jackson, Nicholas (October 26, 2010). "The First Photograph of a Human". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 2, 2017.
  7. ^ Withnall, Adam (November 5, 2014). "This is the first ever photograph of a human – and how the scene it was taken in looks today". The Independent. Retrieved March 2, 2017.
  8. ^ Hannavy, John (December 16, 2013). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Routledge. p. 339. ISBN 978-1-135-87327-1.
  9. ^ Symcox, Jonathan (December 19, 2013). "See the world's first selfie taken in 1839 by unkempt amateur chemist". Daily Mirror. Retrieved March 2, 2017.
  10. ^ Hannavy 2013 p.340
  11. ^ a b American Journal of Photography. Thos. H. McCollin & Company. 1893. p. 420.
  12. ^ American Journal of Photography, Volume 14 1893 pp.420–422
  13. ^ Society, American Philosophical (1893). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society. p. 242.

External links[edit]