A Week with the Wonder Photo Cannon

In her recent Situating Science blog post Melissa Otis provides a great overview of the weeklong Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI) held earlier this month at the Canadian Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in Ottawa. Since the general format of the week has already been discussed, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about my own experience with one of the biggest components of the institute: the investigation of a specific artifact from the CSTM’s collection over the course of the week. In my case, this object was the Chicago Ferrotype Company’s Wonder Photo Cannon (shown in the thumbnail to the right).



The Big Choice

When we (the 20 or so participants in this year’s RASI) arrived on the first day we were greeted by approximately a dozen artifacts laid out around the room. After making the rounds and giving each object a cursory once over we selected the object we wanted to spend the week investigating in small groups. This may well have been the hardest decision of the week, at least for me, as there were so may neat objects to choose from. In the end I settled upon the Wonder Photo Cannon. Relatively small compared to the other artifacts (which included a bus-like motor home!) the Wonder Photo Cannon appealed both because it intrigued me with its cannon-like shape and because it was the object I found the most difficult to determine the function of during my quick perusal of the artifacts.

First Impressions

As its name suggests, the Wonder Photo Cannon looks quite a bit like a cannon; it even has a sight on top for staring down your chosen target. Upon first glance it was obviously in less than pristine condition, with pieces missing (such as a second sight), and various dents and wear across most of its metal casing. Unsure just was a Wonder Photo Cannon was there was wild speculation that it might be a camera, a projector, or some kind of viewing device.

The Magic of Google

Fortunately scrolled across the Photo Cannon’s base was the biggest clue to the artifact: its name. The Wonder Photo Cannon Chicago Ferrotype Co. A quick Google search and we – myself and the two other group members of “Team Camera” – discovered that the Photo Cannon is in fact a camera. Patented in 1908, the camera was manufactured in the early 1910s and produced ferrotype (or tintype) images on small metal discs that were loaded in the Cannon’s magazine. Once developed, these discs were then put into frames and worn as photo buttons.

It soon became obvious as a result of our online search, and a perusal of the patent, that our particular Photo Cannon was missing its developing basin, which would have formed the base of the camera. After taking a photograph with the Cannon the metal disc the image was taken on dropped down through the camera into the developing bath. After only thirty seconds your photo button was ready to wear!

Some more targeted online searching - this time in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America newspaper database and Google Books - turned up some great advertisements for the Wonder Photo Cannon. The advertisements promised huge (for the time) profits to those who purchased the camera and exclaimed that with the Wonder Photo Cannon: “Fairs, Carnivals and Picnics offer unlimited opportunities to hustlers” (New-York Tribune, May 02, 1909, p. 12). It seemed the Wonder Photo Cannon was a get rich quick scheme in its time. Something akin the spam advertisements of that populate the web today promising you the opportunity to make thousands of dollars a week working from home. (See these advertisements, more photographs of the Wonder Photo Cannon, and photographs of RASI 2012 more generally here.)

Buttons! Button! Buttons!

After doing some research on our own, each group was given the accession file that accompanied their artifact. In our case, there was not much additional information to be found in the file. Acquired at an auction in the 1980s there was no unique personal story to accompany this particular Wonder Photo Cannon (unlike with some of the other artifacts investigated during RASI 2012). Still, included in the accession file were photographs of the Wonder Photo Cannon when it was taken apart and cleaned as part of the conservation process. These photographs of all the Cannon’s parts helped us better understand exactly how the camera worked and peaked our interest in the discs the camera produced photographs on.

At this point we, Team Camera, had become obsessed with photo buttons. Google turned up a few images of photo buttons that might have been produced by a camera like the Wonder Photo Cannon. Wanting more than just an image of these photo buttons we seized the opportunity to collection surf in the CSTM. A search of the CSTM’s database turned up an entry for photo buttons and off we went to see them in person. While these buttons were similar in size (approximately 1 inch in diameter) to what the Wonder Photo Cannon would have produced they were largely produced on paper rather than metal. Given the rough and ready construction of our camera, a quick and dirty developing process, and the propensity of tintypes to rust we began to speculate that perhaps our photo buttons were such poor quality that they have not survived.

Presentation Day

At the end of our weeklong investigation we had the opportunity to share all we’d discovered about the Wonder Photo Cannon to the rest of the RASI participants (and a few special guests). In our presentation we discussed not just what our artifact ended up being – a camera – but also how it worked, what was missing from the object, the generally poor quality construction of the camera, how it was marketed, and the fact that photo buttons – like those produced by the Wonder Photo Cannon – were popular items during the 1910s. We also returned to the cannon-like design of the camera and observed that cannon and riffle style cameras were common during this period. This militaristic design of the camera also brought to mind some of the militaristic language that continues to surround photography (e.g., photo shoot).

Ultimately, the best story about our artifact lay not in the specific history of the artifact itself (something that remains unknown), but rather in taking this object as a point of departure – and source of information – on particular photographic practices that existed in the early twentieth century. While the Wonder Photo Cannon was a kind of early instant camera that was marketed as a get rich quick scheme to the itinerant hustler, it was also an accessible technology that seemingly expanded the public’s access to photography.

Jacy L. Young is a doctoral student in the history and theory of psychology programme at York University in Toronto.