In the history of photography, the first picture of a celestial object is sure of great importance. I’ve personally never really found particular interest nor had an urge for knowing when the first image of the moon was taken, but I assumed it was relatively recently, say, no more than 100 years ago.

Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that on March 23rd, 1840, John William Draper, New York University professor of chemistry, physician and scientific experimenter, managed to make the first successful photograph of an astronomical object; our Moon. That means that the very first image of a cosmic body in space was captured 180 years ago.

The historical achievement was made possible thanks to a 20-minute daguerreotype imaging utilizing a 13-inch reflector telescope. The first known attempt at astronomical photography was that of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, inventor of the daguerreotype process that bears his name, who attempted in 1839 to photograph the Moon. Tracking errors when guiding the telescope during long exposure meant that the photo came out blurry.

Photograph of the Moon taken in 1863 by Henry Draper. Image Credit: Hastings Historical Society.

Photograph of the Moon taken in 1863 by Henry Draper. Image Credit: Hastings Historical Society.

Draper had learned about the process created by Louis Daguerre only a year earlier, in September of 1839, after news of the invention came from Europe to the United States via a steamship.


Fascinated by the chemistry of light-sensitive materials, Draper decided he would attempt to improve and work on Daguerre’s photographic method. He made progress and found clever ways to increase plate sensitivity and reduce exposure times.

His discoveries not only helped the process of portraiture, but it also made it possible for him to start taking what are considered the earliest photographs of the Moon.

“This is the first time that anything like a distinct representation of the moon’s surface has been obtained.”— Contemporary description of Draper’s 1840 daguerreotype.

Although the image of Draper is considered the first in the history of astrophotography, this wasn’t Draper’s first successful photographs of the Moon. however, it may very well have been one of his fist imagers that were publicly displayed. In other words, the earliest surviving daguerreotype of the moon is that of Draper, taken in 1840.

The full-sizer image of Draper's daguerreotype of the Moon. Image Credit: Greenwich Village History Files.

A full-sizer image of Draper’s daguerreotype of the Moon. Image Credit:

As explained by lightsinthedark, the daguerreotype of the Moon snapped by Draper shows “part of a vertically “flipped” last-quarter Moon—so lunar south is near the top—which would indicate his use of a device called a heliostat to keep light from the Moon focused on the plate during a long 20-minute exposure.”

In 1843, Draper made daguerreotypes of the solar spectrum that revealed new infrared and ultraviolet lines. In addition to his obvious love for astronomy and photography, Draper was a great scientist. Among his many achievements, in 1847 he publishes the observations that all solids glow red at approximately the same temperature, around 977 °F (798 K). This observation would come to be known as Draper’s point.