Sunday, October 11, 2015

Joseph Priestley is on the Move Again

Bronze Sculpture of Joseph Priestley, Leeds, England. Walter Harding, sculptor, 1903

In an article in the Birmingham Mail it has been reported that the bronze statue of Joseph Priestley in Chamberlain Square is on the move.  The statue has been removed from its plinth and transported into storage at the Birmingham Museums Trust Collection Centre ahead of the demolition of the Central Library and the start of reconstruction of the area around the Square.  The statue of James Watt was also removed and the statue of Thomas Atwood will also be removed in a similar manner.
They will all be returned to the Square when the construction work is completed.

Both Watt and Priestley resided in Birmingham during the early days of of the Industrial Revolution and were members of the Lunar Society.  Priestley, a clergyman, scientist, educator, and social activist is best known for his discovery of Oxygen.  James Watt and Matthew Boulton are credited with the development of the steam engine.

The Joseph Priestley Statue was originally located in Victoria Square, then called Council House Square, but was later move to Chamberlain Square and recast in bronze due to irreparable weather erosion to the original marble.

Watt on the move

Capturing Images of the Elderly in the Early Days of Photography and Motion Pictures

George Washington was born in 1732.  When he died in December of 1799, there were no photographic images of him ever taken because the technology of the photographic process had not been discovered yet.  If you want to "see" what George Washington really looked like, you are limited to viewing interpretive paintings, drawings and engravings of him.  Perhaps that is why different pictures of him look like they are not of the same person.

Recently, I was rummaging around and found some old 16mm home movies that my father took in the 1930s.  It had some great shots of his father-in-law.  I was excited to retrieve this footage of my maternal grandfather and I'm going to have it digitized so that I can preserve it and pass it on to my grandson. After all, this is footage of his great-great-grandfather and it ties in well with the genesis of the search for information on my grandparents and other ancestors which I have been collecting since I posted a piece called Touchstones of Time on this blog.

Unless you just happened to have read that post and remembered a lot of the details, I wouldn't expect you to remember that my maternal grandfather was actually born in 1862.  So, in short, I have a motion picture of a person who was born in 1862.

The question I posed to myself is what is the earliest birthdate of a living person (i.e., living at the time of the shooting of the images) whose image is captured on film?  And, of course, the related question, what is the earliest birthdate of a living person who is captured in a photograph?

I have no doubt that there are motion pictures that exist that are of individuals far older than my grandfather.  As a candidate for the earliest birthdate of an individual captured in a photographic image I immediately thought of an image I have seen of Dolley Madison taken on

Dolley Madison, July 4, 1848, age 80
July 4, 1848, who was 80 years old at the time.  She was born on May 20, 1768, almost 250 years ago.  Dolley Madison, of course, was the wife of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison.
Dolley Madison, 1848 daguerreotype by Mathew Brady
A slightly older John Quincy Adams, born on July 11, 1767, was the sixth President of the United States and was captured in the photograph below.
John Quincy Adams, 1843


And, a still older individual, Samuel Wilson, who was born September 13, 1766, was a resident of Troy, New York, and is recognized as the origin of the term "Uncle Sam". The picture below was taken in 1843.  He was 77 years old when the picture was taken.

Uncle Sam Wilson, 1843
Even older yet is a daguerreotype of John Armstrong, Jr. (November 25, 1758 – April 1, 1843)  who was an American soldier and statesman who was a delegate to the Continental Congress, U.S. Senator from New York, and Secretary of War under James Madison.
John Armstrong, Jr. with dog, 1840
This means that Armstrong was about 82 years old when this picture was taken and this was within the first year of the availability of the daguerreotype process.  Daguerreotypy developed by the French painter Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, was the first publicly announced photographic process ever developed, in 1839. However, the oldest image using this process by Daguerre himself was taken two years earlier, in 1837.

 L’Atelier de l'artiste, first photographic image by Daguerre
The longest unambiguously documented human lifespan is that of Jeanne Calment of France (1875–1997), who lived to the age of 122 years, 164 days. The picture below was taken in 1996 on the occasion of her 121st birthday:
Jeanne Calment, at 121st birthday in 1996
Jean Calment met Vincent Van Gogh when she was 11 or 12 years old.

The oldest extant American Daguerreotype portrait was a self-portrait taken by Robert Cornelius in October or November 1839. The announcement of the process occurred in August, 1939, a few months prior.  See below:



Robert Cornelius, Self-Portrait, 1839
Unfortunately, Cornelius was born in 1809, so he does not even come close to claiming fame for the oldest person depicted in a photograph.
On a purely speculative basis I am presuming that the oldest person in a photographic image was shot shortly after the technology was developed in 1839 and that person would have been in their late 80s.
That would put their birthdate somewhere around the beginning of the 1750s.  To put this in perspective, it would have to have been a person born about a decade after George Washington.

The French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey took the first series of photographs with a single instrument in 1882 with a camera shaped like a rifle that recorded 12 successive photographs per second.   However, the world's oldest photographic moving picture sequence is by the French photographer Felix Nadar who created his revolving portrait in 1865.  Thomas Edison is credited with having taken the first true motion picture in 1889, but the image's quality is so poor that the identity of the individual who was the subject in the movie is not discernable.

Again, on a purely speculative basis I am presuming that the oldest person in a motion picture sequence was shot in the early 1890s and that the person could have been in their late 80s.  That would put their birthdate somewhere just after the beginning of the 19th century; probably someone around Abraham Lincoln's date of birth. 


Here is a Youtube sequence of old motion picture cuts from New York City, the oldest being from 1896. If any readers would like to nominate a picture or motion picture that would be a candidate for the oldest person in each category we would like to hear from you.


last modified 1/9/2016