Draper Camera Returns Home
After being at the Smithsonian Institution for sixty-six years, the Draper Camera has returned to the College through the efforts of the former director and curator of the Atkinson Museum, Lorie A. Mastemaker.
The experimental camera was built by Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy (Physics) John W. Draper, who taught at the College from 1836 until 1839 and who left the camera here when he went to teach at New York University. Improving on the techniques credited to Joseph Nicephore Nièpce, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Louis Daguerre, Draper was able to reduce the time of exposure through advanced optics. He took the first photographic portrait of a living person after he went to NYU, thus earning the title of "Father of Portrait Photography."
In a letter printed in The Photographic and Fine Art Journal (July 1858, pp. 221-222), in which Draper responds to a question "respecting priority in taking Photographic portraits," he states, "It will soon be twenty years since I took the first one. . . ."
When Talbot's experiments appeared in the spring of 1839, they, of course, interested me greatly, as having been at work on the action of light for so many years. I repeated what he published and varied it. This was whilst I was professor at Hampden- Sidney [sic] College in Virginia, and before anything had been published by Daguerre. . . I may mention among such experiments that, not being able to get a lens of aperture enough to suit me, I tried a reflecting mirror or rather a reflecting telescope belonging to the college, and I presume, is there still.
The experimental camera resided in the physics laboratory for over eighty-five years until a student-and experienced photographer-Howard C. Cobbs '34, identified the box-like contraption. After eight years of research, Cobbs called to the attention of staff at the Smithsonian and others the fact that "fast-action" photography was initiated at Hampden-Sydney.
At the Commencement exercises of June 1940, the camera, with the telescope by Gilbert & Co., London, England (ca. 1836), was placed on loan to the Smithsonian, which in turn provided a replica for display at the College. It is that replica that students and visitors viewed for the ensuing sixty-six years.
Both the camera and the telescope are currently on display at the Atkinson Museum.