40 Momentous Historical Photographs That Everyone Needs To See

Nowadays, taking a photo is as easy as making a phone call or browsing the internet. In fact, you can likely do all three on the device sat in your hand. It wasn’t always that easy, however. And it can be said that there’s far more value, then, to photos taken a century ago, when the process meant that every shot had to be thought through. These rare historical photos therefore, offer a unique glimpse into the history of civilization.

40. The first selfie

Believe it or not, the concept of a selfie wasn’t born with camera phones. In fact, the photographic self-portrait has been around almost as long as photography itself. That’s because savvy snappers would often sit as their own model while experimenting with their equipment. Take Robert Cornelius, who produced what’s thought to be the first ever selfie in 1839. The budding photographer sat in front of an uncapped lens for a full minute to achieve the shot.

39. The first photographic hoax

Louis Daguerre may be remembered as the founding father of photography, but another pioneer of the technology claimed to have invented it first. Unfortunately, Hippolyte Bayard was pipped to the post after a friend of Daguerre persuaded him to delay unveiling his printing process. To protest this perceived slight, Bayard created the first photographic hoax in 1840. The resulting picture seemingly shows Bayard having drowned himself. In reality, he was alive and well.

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38. The first news photograph

Before 1847 the masses received their news solely via the written word. But that year the Daguerrotype process – conceived by photography pioneer Louis Daguerre – changed everything. Indeed, this image of French authorities arresting a man is believed to be the first newsworthy photograph ever captured. Alas, the identity of the photojournalist behind the shutter has been lost to the mists of time.

37. The oldest surviving aerial photo

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The first ever photo taken from the air has been lost to history. Fortunately, two years after Gaspard-Félix Tournachon snapped his aerial image of Paris, James Black took his camera high above Boston. The resulting photograph, shot from a hot air balloon in 1860 – a full four decades before the Wright brothers invented flight – now resides in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

36. The oldest surviving photo of a U.S. President

William Henry Harrison’s 1841 portrait, like so many of history’s firsts, is long gone. For the oldest surviving photo of a U.S. President, then, we have to turn to John Quincy Adams. Yes, the sixth POTUS, who served from 1825 to 1829, sat for two images in 1843. It’s not known which was captured first, but Adams raucously described one of them as “hideous” in his diary.

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35. The first color photograph

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It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Thomas Sutton’s work on modern photography. Not only did the Englishman develop the first wide-angle lens, he also produced the first color photograph. Sutton worked with James Clerk Maxwell, a theoretical physicist, to shoot a tartan ribbon through blue, green and red filters. The talented duo then combined their three negatives into a single image, creating the foundation of color photography.

34. The first photo of a nuclear explosion

Footage of the July 1945 test of the atomic bomb’s effectiveness has not withstood the test of time. What has lasted, though, is a simple still, snapped by scientist and amateur photographer Jack Aeby. So the story goes, Aeby was permitted to take his camera to the site to record the group’s activities – and ended up recording the explosion. As he later recalled, “It was there, so I shot it.” The resulting image was then used by scientists to determine the true yield of the bomb.

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33. The first photo of Earth taken from space

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On October 24, 1946 a 35mm camera captured the first image of Earth from space – but there was nobody behind the shutter. Instead, the device was programmed to take photos every one and a half seconds. That’s because it was aboard a German-made V2 rocket, some 65 miles above the surface of the planet. The film was then dropped to the ground in a steel canister, ready to be developed.

32. The first digital photo

While digital cameras wouldn’t debut until the mid-1970s, the first digital photo was actually produced almost 20 years prior. Indeed, in 1957 Russell Kirsch scanned an image of his infant son into his computer, creating a 176×176 pixel picture. That may sound like a painfully low resolution, but it was all the computer could manage.

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31. The first photo of the Earth from the Moon

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Three years before man set foot on the Moon, NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I gave a glimpse at the view that awaited those audacious astronauts. Yes, on its 16th orbit, the spacecraft captured an image of our planet from the perspective of the lunar body. It then transmitted the photograph back to NASA’s tracking station in Spain, providing humanity with an historic first.

30. The oldest surviving photo of lightning

Thomas Martin Easterly may be responsible for taking the first ever photograph of lightning in 1847. However, his original work has unfortunately been lost in the decades since. For the oldest surviving image of lightning, then, we must look to William Jennings. The photographer set out to prove that the phenomenon was not the simple zig-zag shape that artists pictured. And while it took him over a year, he eventually captured lightning’s volatile branching form in 1882.

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29. The first photo taken on Mars

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On July 20, 1976 NASA’s Viking 1 touched down on the surface of Mars. And just moments later, the spacecraft captured the first ever photo taken on the red planet. Ironically, its camera could only shoot in black and white, but the resulting image nevertheless represents an incredible moment in human history.

28. The first photo of a tornado

Until the end of the 19th century, all pictorial evidence of tornados came in the form of drawings. However, in 1884 fruit farmer and enthusiast photographer A.A. Adams witnessed a slow-moving cyclone eke through Anderson County in Kansas. Its sluggish pace allowed him time to set up his box camera only 14 miles away – and capture the first ever photo of the freak weather phenomenon.

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27. The first underwater portrait

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It seemingly took less than a century for regular photography to grow stale in France. By the end of the 1800s, entrepreneurial shutterbugs had already begun taking their practice to strange new places. For instance, Louis Boutan, combined his photography and diving talents to shoot this underwater portrait of oceanographer Emil Racovitza. Even more astonishingly, it’s likely Boutan used his homemade sub-surface flash photography rig to illuminate his subject.

26. The first powered flight

The Wright brothers weren’t just aviation pioneers: they were also keen cameramen. By the time they made their first ever powered flight in 1903, they were ready to shoot it on film. Using one of the best cameras available at the time, they captured historic images that returned every detail of their plane’s first sustained flight across the sand dunes of North Carolina.

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25. The Steam Man

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Described by The New York Express as the “eighth wonder of the world,” Zadoc Dederick’s Steam Man captured the imaginations of New Yorkers when it arrived on Broadway in 1868. And it’s likely the 22-year-old inventor’s machine would be equally prized by modern steampunk enthusiasts. You see, Dederick’s fantastical contraption of a man pulling a four-person carriage was powered solely by steam.

24. The President’s dog

This presidential pooch belonged to none other than Abraham Lincoln. But when the POTUS took office, he feared the trip from Illinois would prove too stressful for poor Fido. Instead, he left the dog in the care of his friends – along with the pampered pup’s favorite sofa, and a list of strict rules on how he should be treated.

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23. The first “Miss America”

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In 1921 Margaret Gorman swept through the crowds of Atlantic City’s boardwalk to win the “Inter-City Beauty Contest.” The precocious 16-year-old had already earned the title of “Miss Washington, D.C.” And her accolades that year would see her crowned as the inaugural “Miss America” in 1922 – an honor she swiftly lost to “Miss Columbus,” Mary Katherine Campbell.

22. The first flower to bloom in space

In November 2015 astronauts aboard the International Space Station began the tricky task of growing flowers in space. The experiment was initiated to help scientists study the growth of plants in microgravity, and for astronauts to become accustomed with a process required for deep space missions. The zinnias had a rocky start, but by January 2016, they showed the first signs of flowering.

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21. The first photo taken on Venus

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Venus may be blisteringly hot, but in the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union managed to land satellites on its surface. And while none of them lasted long in the nearly 900-degrees Fahrenheit heat, they did transmit some astonishing images. The first, Venera 9, touched down on October 22, 1975, withstanding the planet’s intense atmospheric pressure to capture a truly remarkable photograph.

20. The first photo of a human being

In 1838 inventor Louis Daguerre managed to capture the first known image of another person. Two people, in fact, were located towards the bottom left of this busy street in Paris. Thanks to the camera’s long exposure time, they were the only individuals to remain stationary for long enough to show up in the photo.

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19. The Statue of Liberty under construction in Paris

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Presented from the people of France to the U.S. in 1886, the Statue of Liberty is now installed on Liberty Island in New York. It was actually sculpted in Paris, however. Here, construction on the statue is well underway in a Parisian workshop in 1884.

18. The first obscene gesture on camera

While the reasons why have been lost to history, it’s clear that Charles Radbourn didn’t get on well with the photographer of this image. Taken in 1886 on the opening day of the Major League Baseball season, the group shot features Radbourn – back left – giving the first known obscene gesture on camera.

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17. Sculpting face masks for disfigured soldiers

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In 1918 plastic surgery wasn’t quite as advanced as it is now. To that end, sculptors would create masks for soldiers who’d been disfigured during combat. And that’s what American artist Anna Coleman Ladd is doing here, in order to help a soldier cover up the missing bottom half of his face.

16. The tallest man in the world

Robert Pershing Wadlow reached a towering eight feet and 11 inches before his untimely death in 1940, aged just 22. That staggering fact makes him the tallest person ever recorded. And photographed here, it’s easy to see why. Even into his 20s, in fact, Wadlow’s growth had showed no signs of slowing down.

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15. German worker refusing to salute in 1936

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Three years before World War Two broke out and three years after the Nazis came to power, this photo depicts a crowd of Germans giving the Nazi salute. With one exception, that is, who’s believed to be August Landmesser. The shipyard worker was eventually imprisoned for his illegal relationship with a Jewish woman and later died while serving in a penal battalion.

14. A family photo on the moon

If humans ever establish a colony on the moon, Charles Duke can claim to have started the trend. In 1972 the astronaut left a family photo on the moon’s surface during the Apollo 16 mission. He subsequently took a picture of it for posterity. So when you put up your family snap in your moon habitat decades from now, think of Duke.

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13. Beer in the fuel tank of a fighter plane

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No, beer wasn’t used to actually fuel planes in World War Two. Instead, the plane was used to deliver alcohol to troops on the front lines. This wasn’t exactly an officially sanctioned use of resources, however, and the British government soon reprimanded the breweries involved for illegally exporting their beer.

12. The future Queen Elizabeth II during World War Two

At just 18 years of age, the future Queen Elizabeth II managed to convince her father, King George VI, to let her help out with the war effort. As a result, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she worked as a driver and mechanic.

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11. American soldiers returning home from World War Two

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Not everyone was so lucky enough to come home from World War Two. In fact, more than 400,000 U.S. soldiers died during the conflict. That makes this picture all the more poignant, then, as the men who did make it out alive return home aboard the dreadnought Queen Elizabeth.

10. Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield

This iconic photo was captured at a party in 1957 for actress Sophia Loren. It wasn’t long, however, before sex symbol Jayne Mansfield had stolen the limelight. Loren later explained her famous side-eye to Entertainment Weekly in 2014. “Look at the picture,” Loren said. “Where are my eyes? I’m staring at her nipples because I am afraid they are about to come onto my plate.”

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9. The original Uncle Sam

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It turns out that the artist who came up with the iconic “I Want YOU” adverts for the U.S. army,
James Montgomery Flagg, didn’t just dream up Uncle Sam’s steely point from his own imagination. The man who modeled for the famous pose was, in fact, Flagg’s neighbor Walter Botts, photographed here in 1970.

8. The Beatles playing for 18 people

Back before they made it big, The Beatles were just like any other band – playing shows in nowhere towns to empty rooms. Like this concert in Aldershot, England, a tiny military town miles from anywhere. The December 1961 show was attended by only 18 people after the band’s promoter failed to advertise it properly.

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7. A Native American man looking down at the transcontinental railroad

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There’s no denying that the transcontinental railroad was the final nail in the coffin for the Native American way of life. Constructed in the 1860s, it pierced straight through the Great Plains, driving away wild animals such as bison – on which Native American tribes relied heavily for food and clothing. Indeed, this photo speaks a thousand words.

6. The first mobile radio telephone

Five decades after Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call, cars were beginning to become commonplace. By 1927, in fact, Ford had manufactured more than 15 million Model T vehicles. The two technologies collided, then, in 1924 – when the first ever in-car telephone was put to use, as pictured here.

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5. Early, extravagant tattoos

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Tattoos aren’t only the domain of the young – or even of your parents. Your great-grandparents, in fact, may well have been advocates of ink themselves. As far back as the late 19th century, body art was becoming popular. This photo from 1928, for example, features a particularly daring tattoo of a naked woman riding on top of a bird.

4. The first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

In 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to survive what must have seemed like a suicide mission at the time. Indeed, the 63-year-old schoolteacher plummeted over Niagara Falls in a barrel in an attempt to make money. While she survived, it wasn’t the get-rich-quick scheme that she’d hoped for. Taylor subsequently admitted that she’d rather “walk up to the mouth of a cannon” than do it again.

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3. The first photo ever taken

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While it takes all of eight milliseconds to snap a picture these days – on a camera you no doubt carry in your pocket – it once took around eight hours to do so. Like the first ever photograph, captured by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor. Taken in either 1826 or 1827 – the exact date is unknown – the grainy image portrays the view from his window.

2. Rescued slaves aboard HMS Daphne

By the late 1860s the British Royal Navy had freed around 150,000 African slaves, following the introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Here, dozens of rescued East African slaves are pictured aboard HMS Daphne in 1868, having been liberated from Arab slave traders.

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1. A white woman with a Native American tattoo

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Taken in 1863 this photograph portrays Olive Oatman, who 12 years earlier had been kidnapped by Native Americans and then sold to the Mohave tribe. The tattoo on her chin signified that she was a member of the Mohaves, suggesting that they treated her not as a slave, but as an equal. After half a decade in captivity, she eventually escaped.

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