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Henry Fitz: Printer, Locksmith, Photographer, Telescope Maker

Presented by Steven Turner, Curator, Physical Sciences, NMNH

Henry Fitz (1808–1863) was America’s first important commercial telescope maker, but he also made important contributions to the development of American photography. He had prodigious mechanical skills and enormous energy. As a teenager he learned to be a printer to support a journal that his father edited. He later became a locksmith and through his twenties he traveled extensively as the representative of a New York lock company. He spent his evenings reading and developed a deep love of astronomy. During this period he taught himself telescope making and it was his skill in grinding telescope mirrors that led him into a friendship with another amateur telescope maker, Alexander Wolcott. In 1839 Wolcott learned about Daguerre’s new photographic process and quickly invented a camera that used a concave mirror, much like a telescope. The following year, when Wolcott decided to make his camera commercially, it was Fitz to whom he turned to make his mirrors. Fitz also became interested in photography and changed professions again, this time moving to Baltimore to open the city’s first photography studio.

Fitz stayed in Baltimore from 1840 until 1845, spending his days taking photographs and his nights making telescopes. He learned to grind precision telescope lenses and in 1845, after winning an award for one of his telescopes, he changed careers again – this time moving to New York to open his own telescope shop. Fitz remained a telescope maker for the rest of

his life, but he never forgot his interest in photography.Towards the end of his life he was working on a large photographic telescope with his friend, the scientist Lewis Rutherfurd. It was the first instrument of its kind, but Fitz died before it could be completed. Fortunately, Rutherfurd and Fitz’s his son Harry were able to finish the instrument and the stunning photographs that it produced marked the beginnings of precision astronomical photography.

Fitz was also working on another photographic project when he died – the development of a new photographic lens. Fitz had trained C.C. Harrison, a New York photographic plate dealer, to grind lenses and appears to have assisted him in developing the “Globe” lens – an innovative camera lens that could be used for studio, landscape and copy work. It was an important innovation but Harrison appears to have patented it without crediting Fitz. Fitz was developing a version of this lens for his own patent when he died. Although Fitz’s lens – which was briefly marketed as the Fitz “View” – was not a commercial success, Fitz’s contributions to American photography were significant and long-lasting.

Summary of Steven Turner's Lecture (Audio Only)
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Open Daguerreotype