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Image taken on 1839 camera (Pic: Flints)
This image may have been the first taken on the camera in 100 years (Pic: Flints)

Last week, specialist UK auctioneers Flints put up for sale a unique “mousetrap” camera thought to date from around 1839.

The camera – complete with its original, primitive lens – is a homemade camera made from wood, brass and even a piece of bone used to keep the back door tightly closed.

The camera was expected to sell for between £50,000 and £70,000. It didn’t sell, but by virtue of being possibly the oldest camera in the world to have gone on private sale, it attracted quite a bit of interest.

What do you do when you have one of the world’s oldest cameras sitting around your office? You put a roll of film through it, obviously.

“This was actually quite a long process by today’s 35mm standard,” Flints’ Josh Cole told Kosmo Foto. “It was more like loading a single shot plate camera back in the day. Essentially the camera was placed in dark bag along with a roll of Kosmo Foto Mono and a pair of scissors. I then cut a four-inch (10cm) length of film from the canister, held it tight against the opened rear of the camera, then pushed the back in to pinch the film in place.

Homemade "mousetrap" camera (Pic: Flints)
The camera is believed to be the oldest ever offered for sale (Pic: Flints)

“I then took the slack out of the film by again pulling it right to minimise field curvature. We then placed the empty black film canister over the camera lens and peeked it out of one of the arm loading holes of the dark bag. When we were ready for the shot, we removed the film canister to expose the film to light. We then closed the camera half a second later. That was our shutter speed!

“No one had shot the camera since we had it. To our knowledge this is the first time the camera has been used in the last 100 years at least.”

Cole said the camera would have originally used the Calotype process to take images.

“Essentially by using regular paper coated with simple photo-sensitive emulsions. It would take several hours to expose an image on this type of medium so we guess the ISO to be below 1 or 2!

“Without a shadow of a doubt this is the oldest camera we have taken a picture with. Ever. And I very much doubt we’ll ever shoot on something this old again. A real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Image of toy dog (Pic: Flints)
This is a digital image showing the scene taken on the mousetrap camera at the top of the story (Pic: Flints)

The results are obviously very soft and indistinct, but comparing the image of the Flints toy dog to the digital image to the left, you can certainly recognise some of the detail. It’s worth bearing in mind that this home-made camera was made before professional cameras. Photography had to start from somewhere.

“At first we were a little disappointed in the results,” Cole said. “I’d just finished scanning some negatives from a Fuji GW690III so with that kind of quality in mind these were a far cry from that sort of resolution. Then we compared it to results from similar cameras at the time and were actually elated as to how similar our results were in comparison to what photographers of the time were able to achieve. Overall, a great success and a really insightful and very special camera and process to work with. I’ll almost certainly never take images on such a special camera again in my entire lifetime.”

Landscape image (Pic: Flints)
A landscape image was also taken on the camera (Pic: Flints)

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Stephen Dowling
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