First Camera Invented

Charlotte Gerber
An early daguerreotype photo by Louis Daguerre

Alexander Wolcott invented the first camera similar to those used today. He patented his camera design on May 8, 1840. His invention made it possible for candid photos to be taken and not fade away with time. Mr. Wolcott also has the distinction of opening the earliest photography shop (known as a daguerran parlor) in New York.

Camera Predecessors

The earliest photographs were not taken with Alexander Wolcott's invention. Joseph Nicephore Niepce used a sliding wooden box to take photographs in 1826. Charles and Vincent Chevalier in Paris created this early predecessor of Mr. Wolcott's invention. This sliding box could capture images by using a mixture of silver and chalk exposed under a light source. Johann Heinrich Schultz discovered this silver and chalk method in 1724.


Louis Jacque Daguerre and Joseph Nicephore Niepce discovered the daguerreotype process in 1836. Daguerreotypes are photos created using a particular photographic method, which involves coating a copper plate with silver, then treating it with iodine vapor to create daguerreotype photos. This made the plate sensitive to light. After the photo was taken, exposing it to mercury vapor and ordinary table salt developed the image.


Henry Fox Talbot discovered the calotype process in 1841. The calotype photo used paper coated with silver iodide. After the paper was exposed to a light source, excess silver iodide is washed away when the pure silver is oxidized with an application of gallo-nitrate. The resulting silver oxide is black, making the image visible.

Primitive Cameras

Before Mr. Wolcott's invention, there were primitive cameras that could capture images. Problems ranged from images that faded to the length of time it took for the images to develop. The following are some of the inventions that led to the eventual creation of Mr. Wolcott's 1840 camera.

Pinhole Camera

The concept of the pinhole camera was in use since the 4th century BC. Aristotle and Euclid frequently wrote about naturally occurring pinhole cameras. The Greeks believed that light was emitted from their eyes, rather than entering them. Once there was a better understanding of how light works, actual pinhole cameras were created.

An Arab physicist, Ibn al-Haytham, published his Book of Optics in 1021 AD. He created the first pinhole camera after observing how light traveled through a window shutter. Ibn al-Haytham realized that smaller holes would create sharper images.

Camera Obscura

Ibn al-Haytham is also credited with inventing the first camera obscura. In Latin, camera obscura means dark chamber. A camera obscura may be a building with small holes used in the same manner as a pinhole camera, or it may be a small box with a hole in it, serving the same purpose. This primitive camera works by having light travel through the hole, strike a reflective surface, and project an image in color, upside down. These cameras were popular as entertainment devices at the time because tracing the projected image could create very accurate drawings or paintings. In the 18th century, similar cameras were created and mirrors were used as the reflective surface. By using mirrors, the reflected image was then projected as right side up, instead of upside down.

Camera obscura buildings still exist and are in use today. One can be found at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Invention of the Modern Camera

The first camera invented by Mr. Wolcott in 1841 received U.S. patent number 1,582. This camera could take candid photos, and Mr. Wolcott used the daguerreotype process to reproduce the images on paper. It incorporated all the previous discoveries made with regards to the creation of a box that uses light to reflect images and the development of images on paper.

A Continual Evolution

Cameras and the photographic process continued to develop in rapid succession. The dry plate process in 1855 made it possible for photographers to take candid photos quickly. In 1885, Kodak developed paper film. Celluloid film followed in 1889. By the turn of the century, the Kodak Brownie camera had been invented, making it possible for the average person to take candid photos of friends and family. This ushered in a new era of photography that continually evolves, even today with digital cameras.

First Camera Invented