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Caught Our Eyes: On the Head of a Pin

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Mental hospital, Philadelphia, Pa. Photo by Langenheim & Co., ca. 1858.

When I came across the photograph at right in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, it did not stand out. It is a circa 1858 view of a Philadelphia mental hospital, and while the age is notable, that would not necessarily be enough to arrest my attention.

So, why did this image catch my eye?

To be fair, it wasn’t the digital image in this case, but the catalog description. The medium field describes this as a microphotograph, and the linked record for LOT 13127 gives the diameter of the image as 1 millimeter. That’s right, this photograph, where the scan reveals building details, and even a group of people standing out front if you look closely, would literally fit on the head of a pin.

My attention was officially grabbed, so I pulled LOT 13127, which contains two such microphotographs. And this is what I found:

Contents of LOT 13127.
Detail of LOT 13127, no. 1.

Even now you likely cannot see the photographs!  I zoomed in further. Note the penny for scale and that red arrow, which points to the photograph itself. Through digital scanning, you don’t have to rely on a microscope to see the photograph, as might have been required in the 19th century.

Working with an historical collection means sometimes getting asked questions about our oldest, biggest, most rare, most valuable photograph, print, poster, and so on. Those are the kinds of questions that are often quite difficult to answer. Dates – especially for objects hundreds of years old – are not easy to verify. Rarity and value are subjective and variable.

But if anyone ever comes asking for our smallest photographs, I’ll know just where to look!

Update (6/14/12): Looks like we caught your eye, too! We’ve had numerous inquiries from those curious to learn more about microphotography. An English instrument maker and inventor named John Benjamin Dancer pioneered the process in the 1840s.  This article about a collection of Dancer’s microphotographs at the University of Cambridge offers more about how these small images were used, and the process behind them.

Learn More:

Comments (9)

  1. That. is. SO. COOL! who knew they had the technology to do that way back then!

  2. I’d love some details about the specs of the photograph. What was the process used? Looks a bit like albumen but I’m not sure the date is late enough for that. Any idea what kind of camera and lens were used (or if there even was a lens)

  3. I am slowly dying of cancer. If I could have my dying wish it would be to spend at least 2 weeks inside the Library. Ithink it is the best place in the world. Thank all of you for mataining it in good condition. CDM

  4. Great story!

  5. Only the wet collodion on glass process could be used to create these microphotographs which were reduced in size using a microscope as the camera. These were very common in the 1850s and up until the commercial dry plate era and were known as Stanhopes (after Lord Charles Stanhope). They were especially employed during war time or to conduct espionage as indicated in Josef Maria Eder’s book History of Photography (3rd ed., 1905; reprint, 1978, pp. 388-391; he called this photomicrography or “microscopically reduced pictures”).

  6. I have always loved photography and all that goes into it. I never knew of this process before but find quite interesting. Thank you for all the good work you do preserving our nations history and culture.

  7. Love it! SO COOL!!!

  8. A very interesting article. I had no idea this capability existed back then. Thanks for sharing the information.

  9. Great article! Thanks for the valuable information Mr. Mattison!

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