Was this really the first camera ever built?

It may be big, but it certainly wasn’t the first. With that being said, its historical significance can’t be denied.

“The first camera ever built. Taken with the second camera ever built”

– this is the caption that often accompanies the picture above.

While the picture is genuine, it was taken in 1900, so more than 50 years after the first camera was built. The Mammoth Camera (as it came to be known) was created by George R. Lawrence. According to the Hoax of Fame, it was the biggest camera built at the time; it weighed over 400 kg and took 15 people to build.

So who would ever need such a huge camera? According to Simon Baker, it was the Chicago & Alton Railway company, who wished to take a picture of their newest train, the Alton Limited. In 1900, this train was described as follows:

“No train of cars had ever before been built with windows of the same size, shape, and style from mail car to parlor car, the cars in no train heretofore had all been mounted on standard six-wheels trucks, no former effort had been made to have every car in the train precisely the same length and height, and no railway, except the Alton Road, had ever caused the tender of its locomotives to be constructed to rise to the exact height of the body of the cars following, the hood of its locomotives to the exact height of the roofs of the cars.”


So they ordered the Mammoth Camera to be built for hyping purposes; and the picture taken was sent to Paris, for the 1900 World’s Fair.

However, when the picture arrived in Europe, many people were sceptical, as no one has ever seen a picture of this size.

In order to quell the people’s doubts, the French ambassador to the United States was invited to Chicago to inspect the camera. After he verified the camera, the giant picture of the Alton Limited was exhibited and Lawrence received a prestigious award for “evolving art and science of photography”.


2 thoughts on “Was this really the first camera ever built?”

  1. Yes, the 8 ft long photograph of the “Alton Limited” is rare. This 8 ft long “Alton Limited” photograph depicts an American 4-4-0 steam locomotive – Engine 502 (with tender) pulling six Pullman cars (named: Chicago, Lincoln, Pekin, Alton, Bloomington, and Missouri). Your article displays a 39.5 inch long photograph of the “Alton Limited” from the Library of Congress, that George R. Lawrence made in 1905 with a smaller camera; this photo is often confused or interchanged with the 8 ft long photograph. This 39.5 inch long “Alton Limited” photograph depicts a Pacific 4-6-2 steam locomotive (with tender) pulling eight Pullman cars (this photograph was made in 1905 – after the train was re-equipped with a larger locomotive and two additional cars). The Library of Congress does not have an 8 ft long photograph of the “Alton Limited” that George R. Lawrence made in 1900.

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