WHO INVENTED PHOTOGRAPHY?
A "Time for Patriots" Story
by Thomas Wm. Hamilton
While historians, such as Edolphus Frobisher (1) and Paul Elliott Penwiper (2), have long attributed the invention of photography to the work of Ralph Desmond in 1827, there have been persistant rumors of earlier photographs. I believe that in going through the effects of a deceased collector I may have found undisputable evidence of much earlier photography.
Nehemiah S. Barnstable was born in 1771 in Ipswich, Massachusetts. During the Revolution he was orphaned, and having no surviving family members prepared to take responsibility for the child, was at first left as a burden on the town. However, he became one of a small group of children taken into North Shore Military Academy, and raised and educated there. He graduated the school in 1789, and moved west, settling in what later became Ohio. He never married. His subsequent contact with the school and other alumni is not recorded, and attempts to obtain information from North Shore Military Academy have been ignored except to confirm the facts above.
Barnstable died in 1835. He left his property, a thirty acre farm with small house and a barn, to the academy, but before anyone from there could travel to Ohio to examine what he left, a great fire swept through the area, destroying not only Barnstable's home and property, but that of over twenty other owners in the area. The land, including not just Barnstable's, but also that of his former neighbors, lay fallow for decades, being in the flood plain of a river as well as being susceptible to additional brush fires.
In 1874, as part of a class in American history, I led a group of students from Ohio State University to the area devastated by the 1835 fire. The intent, other than class experience and training, was to determine if anything of interest had survived. The first five sites explored turned up various minor metal and ceramic objects such as might be expected to be found on a farm and in a farming family home of the era. Nothing of exceptional interst turned up except for some mementos of the 1832 Presidential election at the second site, suggesting that the family there were strong supporters of the Whig Party. A couple minor items from the subsequent Ohio gubernatorial election seem to confirm this.
Barnstable's homestead was the sixth one examined, and given the time constraints, was to be the last for this particular class. In digging, one of the students discovered a buried vault, apparently undisturbed since the fire. Upon opening the vault, we discovered a number of items which had survived their decades underground quite well. These included several books, items such as uniforms and insignia associated with being a cadet at North Shore Military Academy, and two books of photographs, each labelled "yearbook". The student who found thess noted opening pages that showed various scenes at NSMA, and cadets engaged in various activities, and posing for individual portraits. The books were handed to me, and I added them to the collection to be examined later.
Back at my office at Ohio State, it was several weeks before I had the time to look into the books of photographs. One of the first things I noticed was that two of the pictures (one in each book) had what seem to be flags with fourteen stars and stripes crossed with flags that distinctly have but thirteen stripes (the bottom white stripe is missing), and an uncertain but very large number of stars. My estimate suggests there are a total of fifty stars on the second flag. Since the Revolution involved fourteen states, no flag ever had fewer than fourteen stars and a similar number of stripes. And why a flag which has but thirteen stripes, and what is clearly even more stars than the 38 we have today? When would such pictures have been taken? Why would such a flag have been created? The scenes with these flags seem to show a graduation ceremony.
The most curious photographs are two which appear to show Benjamin Franklin visiting NSMA. It is known, of course, that he did visit there once, after the war (see Life of Franklin, A Man for America, Lillian Detwiler, 1817). The purpose was to check the well being of the war orphans adopted by the school. This was done at the behest of Washington. But this was decades before any suggestion of the existence of photography. Yet, we find among the photographs one that is labelled as showing the fourth grade class. This is approximately the grade Barnstable would have been in when Franklin visited. And one of the cadets is identified as being "N. Barnstable". All cadets below the ninth grade are identified only by initial and last name.
The second book appears to include Barnstable as a cadet in his last year before graduation. He has the rank of corporal, and his name is written as "Nehemiah Barnstable", with his birthplace noted.
If these are legitimate, then photography of a high quality must have existed for at least four decades before Ralph Desmond introduced it--years before his birth, in fact. It is curious that Desmond is a graduate of North Shore Military Academy, and suggests, at least to me, that photography may have been invented there and kept a private secret until Desmond chose to reveal it. If true, NSMA may have some historically valuable photographs of people whose pictures are not available, such as George Washington himself. Queries on this, unfortunately, have drawn no response from the school.
1. Frobisher, E. "The Camera's Eye", Journal of the History of Technology, March 1852.
2. Penwiper, P. ""Positiving the Negative", Camera Times, January 1861.