Society

Photo: Niagara Falls, 1840

How academics found the first photograph to be taken in Canada

Courtesy Robinson Library Special Collections, Newcastle University. With Thanks to Robin AndersonCourtesy Robinson Library Special Collections, Newcastle University. With Thanks to Robin Anderson

This image of Niagara Falls was discovered twelve years ago in a box at Newcastle University in England. The box, marked “Daguerrotypes,” had been languishing on a shelf in Special Collections since 1926, when it was given to the library by descendants of British industrialist Hugh Lee Pattinson. Then a student of the early form of photography just perfected by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Pattinson was in Canada on a business trip when he stopped at the Falls to practice his technique. It took more than twenty minutes for the scene to affix on the silver-coated copper plate inside his camera; afterward, he would envelop the plate in warm mercury fumes, slowly drawing the image to the surface. It must have been thrilling, but no more so than when, a century and half later, historians learned what had been unearthed at Newcastle: the first photograph ever taken in Canada.