This 1839 daguerreotype by Joseph Saxton, of Philadelphia Central High School and the Pennsylvania State Arsenal, is thought to be the oldest surviving photo taken in the United States. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

In the fall of 1839, Joseph Saxton looked out his window in Philadelphia and did something almost no one in this country had done before.

He took a picture.

Born in Western Pennsylvania, Saxton had limited formal education. But what he lacked in schooling he made up for in engineering genius.

At age 18, he moved to Philly and quickly established himself as an expert watchmaker, helping design a four-faced clock for the steeple at Independence Hall.

He then went to England, where his inventing prowess became evident. Among his inventions there, per the National Academy of Sciences, were a device for measuring ship velocity, another for measuring water in a steam boiler, and a prototype for a kind of fountain pen.

Later, while working for the federal government, Saxton invented a tide gauge that is believed to be the first such device to register an earthquake.

Between leaving for England and moving to D.C. for his federal job, Saxton made a second stop in Philadelphia to work for the U.S. Mint. At the time, the Mint was located at Chestnut and Juniper in Center City.

The U.S. Mint at Chestnut & Juniper streets in 1902. (Library of Congress)

While at his office on a fall day in 1839, Saxton did something remarkable.

He took a cigar box and glass lens to make a very crude, early version of a camera. He aimed this camera at Central High School, across the street, and used it to produce an image known as a daguerreotype.

The daguerreotype process had only just been unveiled publicly in France. Saxton was at the vanguard of this new technology — so much so that his image became historically significant:

It is widely considered the oldest surviving photograph in the United States.

Sure, it’s possible other photos were taken prior to that one, but Saxton’s is the oldest photo we currently have.

Saxton later inspired an associate named Robert Cornelius to take an interest in the technology. Cornelius would become the first American to take a picture of a human (himself) — and later opened some of the earliest photo studios.

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839; believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo. (Library of Congress)

Today, our world is awash in photos.

But only one can be the oldest.

In this country, that honor belongs to a grainy image taken by a government employee right here in Philadelphia.

Originally posted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on Oct. 26, 2023 

Clarification: A previous version of this story unintentionally misdated one of the historical photos.

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...