Skip to main content

Is the world’s tiniest elephant in RAMM?

By September 13, 2019January 26th, 2021Member News & Updates

Next to Gerald, RAMM’s famous giraffe, you can find an African elephant. But did you know that the museum’s collection also includes one that is almost invisible to the naked eye? This 19th-century microphotograph of an elephant is only a few millimetres in size.

Curious microphotographs in RAMM’s collection

Photographs come in many forms and sizes. RAMM’s collection includes the earliest form of photographs (daguerreotypes) through to contemporary photobooks. There are albums that can only be carried by two people at a time, while the smallest photographs only become clearly visible when viewed through a microscope. The importance of these microphotographs has recently been uncovered. The British pioneer of photography William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) took photographs through a microscope in 1835. It is however John Benjamin Dancer (1812-1887), an optician, inventor and entrepreneur from Manchester, who is credited with the invention of microphotography. Examples of Dancer’s photography can be found in RAMM’s collection.

Much more than just amusing curiosities

For many of Dancer’s contemporaries the microphotograph were just an amusing curiosity with no practical use. The photographs in RAMM’s collection include reproductions of paintings, letters and other texts and images taken from life, such as photographs of monuments or famous people. These microphotographs were seen as entertaining novelties for the wealthy. They were, however, also used for espionage. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 microphotographs successfully hid information from enemies.

Microphotography and astrophotography

In nineteenth-century visual culture, microphotography was situated between scientific discovery and entertainment. Exemplary of this is a microphotograph of ‘The Full Moon, from a Splendid Negative taken by Mr. Rutherford’. Astrophotography, photography of the stars, the moon and the sun, was pioneered during the mid-19th century. American lawyer and astronomer Lewis M. Rutherfurd (often misspelled as Rutherford) invented the first telescope specifically designed for taking photographs of astronomical objects. He produced high quality photographs of the cycles of the moon over a century before humans set foot on it.