Today, the camera fails to give us all we want. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Gail Buckland's book,
First Photographs, poses the question,
"What happened when we aimed cameras at new
subjects for the first time?" This collection of
old photos makes a stunning account of how we
reacted then we could suddenly see all the things
we'd never seen before.
She begins with a tinted photo of the king of Siam
taken in the 1850s -- the same king whom Anna
tutored. This is not Yul Brynner. This king, seated
upon his throne and decked in extreme formal garb,
wears the expression of a petulant child.
By 1860, we find the first aerial photos. It was
hard to make a time exposure from an unsteady
moving balloon, but here are the first views of
European and American towns.
We know they were heady wine for the people below.
Just before the first aerial photos, itinerant
artists had been going from one midwestern American
town to the next, making remarkably accurate aerial
pictures from their own imaginations.
Of course flight was the stuff of so many famous
firsts. Photography captured the Wrights' first
flight, the first air-passenger service, the first
airmail delivery, Otto Lilienthal's glider flights
(before one killed him), even the first primitive
American dirigible, built in California in 1869.
Another theme is the charnel house of death: a
lovely dead girl in an open coffin, the first
photos of death by famine, a hidden camera shot of
Ruth Snyder dying in an early electric chair for
murdering her husband, a pistol duel, a
The outpouring reaches through and beyond the early
19th century. We see the first nude photo, the
first Miss America, Peary at the North Pole, the
flaming Hindenburg, and, at length, close-up photos
of Mars's rocky red surface.
This record hints of all the things we've craved to
see and never could: the inside of the atom, the
center of the earth, the universe seen from outside
it, and our own right elbow. Yet our huge craving
to see -- over the heads of the crowd, inside the
darkened room -- is not fulfilled at all.
In the end, cameras only whet that desire. They
don't fulfill it, they feed it. Most inventions are
things we must learn to want, after the fact. But
ones that help us see are another story: the
airplane, television, X-rays, and, of course, the
camera, are all things we imagined and tried to
invent for centuries. Now we begin to see the whole
internal and external world on computer screens.
And as we do, we still go away thirsty for more.
For nothing marks the human species more than this
unquenchable craving -- to see everything.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds