Fact: Millennials Didn’t Invent Selfies—This Guy Did

How an amateur photographer took the world's first selfie in 1839 using a homemade camera, toxic chemicals, and the coolest pose possible.

selfportraitvia publicdomainreview.orgIt’s a bright, cool day in October, 1839 and you decide to take a selfie.

Your father, a Dutch immigrant, owns a profitable lamp shop in downtown Philadelphia, where you’ve learned a thing or two about silver-plating and exploiting the power of light. You decide to set up your selfie studio in the shop’s backyard. And by “studio,” you mean “box”—a tin box, sealed shut except for one hole where you’ve inserted a tiny circular lens that you wrenched out of a pair of opera glasses (you can beg mom’s forgiveness later). If all goes to plan when you remove the lens cap, the day’s modest sunlight will filter into the box and etch your image—your selfie—onto a silver-plated piece of copper inside the box, a fragile canvas treated with iodine and bromine and other magical fumes you learned about in chemistry lectures.

Does this all sound crazy? Maybe so—but science says it should work! A Frenchman named Daguerre made it work (that’s what the newest journals say, anyway) so why can’t you? What does a Frenchman have that you, a 30-year-old, privately educated American polymath, don’t have? Daguerre probably didn’t go to school for chemistry. Daguerre probably doesn’t have beautifully-tousled hair.

Your box steadily situated outside, you remove the lens cap. Action! You sprint around to the front of your homemade camera, position yourself handsomely in front of the little opera glass, and cross your arms. Then, you wait. Motionless. A minute passes. Five minutes. How long do you have to hold this pose, again? You’re pretty sure it’s less than fifteen minutes, but who’s to say? Nobody has ever done this before.

After ten minutes without so much as scratching your handsome American nose, you call it. You rush back to the camera, return the lens cap over the glass, and wipe your brow. Your selfie — the world’s first selfie — is somewhere in that box, yearning to reveal your tousled hair, your brooding eyebrows, your chill, devil-may-care style. Finally, it’s almost time to share your selfie with your social network: All you have to do first is take the copper plate inside, fume it with mercury vapor to expose the latent image, remove its sensitivity to light with a special chemical treatment you read about in your science journals, rinse it, dry it, mount it on paper, then seal it behind glass for the rest of your life lest a single fingerprint smudge its delicate surface and ruin it forever.

And so, that’s what you do.

Congratulations! You are Robert Cornelius, and you have just taken the world’s first-known photographic self portrait—the world’s first selfie. On the back of the photo’s paper mounting, you write, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.” Friends and strangers who see your selfie will encourage your craft. Next year, in 1840, you will open Philadelphia’s first portrait studio—the second such studio in all of America. You will take many portraits of pompous-looking men in black coats, but none of them look as cool or as chill as you do in your selfie. Perhaps you think of this each time a bespectacled old man sits down in front of your camera. Perhaps the fun was in the self-discovery. After a few years of this, you will abandon your studio and return to the family lamp trade.

You will die old and wealthy in 1893, remembered for bringing light into thousands of homes. But 120 years later, when “selfie” is declared the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year, the world will owe far more to the light you captured on that bright, cool October day, with your tin box in your dad’s backyard.