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