The First Great Gig in the Sky

Photograph/Wiiliam Nicholson Jennings Image Source:

Photograph/William Nicholson Jennings Image Source:

When William Nicholson Jennings began photographing lightning, he had one purpose in mind; to disprove the idea that lightning strikes only in a zig-zag pattern. So he spent the next 15 years and more, diligently photographing the weather phenomenon on his four-by-five plate camera, and proved the unpredictability and diversity of lightning. Jennings also maintained a notebook and methodically jotted down notes, alongside the photographs he shot of the different patterns. However, his first few attempts proved to be unsuccessful, as his photographic plates were not sensitive enough. He did not let this discourage him, “and a year later, John Carbutt, a pioneer filmmaker, produced a superior emulsion and supplied Jennings with a boxful,” as stated in the 1932 issue of Popular Science. And so, on 2 September 1882, Jennings went up to his rooftop and photographed his first successful lightning shot. When the picture was published in the Scientific American, it received praise from artists, as well as several members from the scientific community.

However, to say that Jennings shot the first photograph of lightning may not be entirely accurate. There were several individuals before him who tried their hand at not just photographing lightning but other weather phenomena (tornadoes and thunderstorms) as well, an example being Thomas Martin Easterly’s daguerreotype of a streak of lightning in 1847. Aside from his contribution to our understanding of lightning, Jennings was also the first to shoot panoramic aerial photographs of Philadelphia (1893). Later, in the 1910s, he was appointed by the US government to be the official photographer during World War I.

Tags: better photography, First photograph of lightning, November 2016, Popular Science, Story Behind the Picture, William Nicholson Jennings