The world’s oldest camera

By Lisa Griffith

In the last few years I have had a growing interest in photography and working in the national Print Museum has made me think a bit more about the machines that create the historical documents we most use. I used to tell my students at Carlow College that historians are quite unimaginative with their sources- the majority of what we use is the printed or written word, with a smattering of images, and how much can this really tell us about life in the period we are living. I know this can’t be universally applied but often I think as historians we can be quite boring in our sources particularly when we are in a class room. We bombard students with words and often in between they get a few nice pictures or even a political cartoon.

How often can we present them with a description of, for instance, eighteenth-century-dental problems to explain how rudimentary a science it was and that when people had toothaches they were more often than not treated incorrectly which led to all sorts of pain and all sorts of bad moods and knock on effects. Surely something like dentistry was as important to people’s lives then as it is now?

I will have to admit that I did not really engage with medical history when it emerged a few years ago, so I am probably just way behind the curve on this but I have started to think a bit about the processes of change in institutions and practices that are every day to us as well as some and scientific and technical developments (like the camera) to think how they shaped the sources they produced as well as the people who used them. The above image is supposedly of the world’s oldest camera (as well as some random thoughts for a Friday).

38 Responses to “The world’s oldest camera”

  1. Póló Says:

    Don’t mention the dentist. They made an absolute misery of my childhood. Well, maybe it was my own fault for eating too many sweets and never brushing my teeth. That knowledge didn’t mitigate the torture in the least. I was gassed and drilled from a very young age.

    That said, it is an awful pity I don’t have the relevant videos. They weren’t around and no doubt the various dentists would not have liked their work filmed.

    A small consolation is that photos I took in the 1950s now have a historical edge to them as the visual world has changed so much since.

    I never had a camera as old as the one pictured above but I did once have a kodak brownie box camera which was probably only one or two steps forward. Since then I have progressed through a variety of cameras and have finally capitulated to the digital version.

    While Powerpoint (or its equivalent) can drive you nuts when people simply reproduce their script on the screen, it does offer a great opportunity for presenting visuals and its increasing use does ensure the availability of this visual facility at virtually all lecture venues, including even your local library. This may well motivate the historian to present, and consider the implications of, such visual representations of history as can be unearthed. It has certainly done that in my case when presenting local or family history.

    I do welcome the universal availability of photography which the digital camera has brought. It means there will be no shortage of visual images of this generation for future historians. The difficulty will be sorting out what is relevant from the current megaburst of photos.

    Of course, the Electro Magnetic Pulse could obliterate a whole generation of images, but I suppose, in that event this would be the least of our worries.

  2. bjg Says:

    I am interested in what you say about the use of non-verbal sources. I am looking into matters concerning steam navigation on the Shannon in the 1830s; I note from Wikipedia that the first commercial Daguerreotype plates were introduced in 1839, so photography is unlikely to provide me with much information.

    I recently acquired copies of, and permission to reproduce, some drawings made by Admiralty surveyors on the Shannon in the 1830s (I’ve put low-res versions here and, and they provide some information that is useful to me.

    But I have wondered how to go about searching for artists’ drawings and paintings to see if any of them show steamers on the Shannon in the 1830s. I haven’t really tackled this yet, but my initial impression is that galleries don’t catalogue their collections in ways that are useful to me. I don’t care who painted it, what medium was used, what size it is or what school the painter belonged to: I just want to know whether there is a detailed depiction of a steamer.

    I see that the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth neare Dublin has a relevant digital image collection, but with only tiny thumbnails available to outsiders.


  3. Juliana Says:

    @bjg: there is definitely a problem when trying to find paintings or drawings by subject matter rather than by artist, etc. The National Gallery does have some books of their collections that allow a limited kind of searching in this manner.

    The V and A has a page on ways to search auction catalogues. A few of the services are online. Might be worth a try:

    I did a quick search in the NLI catalogue, but the images all post-date your time. The 1830s are hard because you are not likely to get newspaper images either, which is a quick and dirty way if you know the date of a launch.


  4. bjg Says:

    Thanks,. Juliana. That’s very helpful. I’ll have a go at the V&A links. bjg

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