In 1874, it wasn’t possible to take photos of the moon, given the fact that high-powered telescopes and modern cameras weren’t invented yet, but that didn’t stop an amateur astronomer.
Using his own inventiveness, James Nasmyth captured “photos” of the moon’s lunar surface that are so striking and detailed, they look like they are from the Apollo missions — but those wouldn’t happen until a century later.
Scottish-born Nasmyth was a leading entrepreneurial engineer of his day and the inventor of the steam hammer. Although not a professional astronomer, he teamed up with one, James Carpenter of the Royal Observatory, to co-author one of the most influential books of the time on lunar geology: The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite. In its 276 pages, Nasmyth and Carpenter sum up three decades of research encompassing all that astronomers knew about the moon, believing that the craters on its surface were of volcanic origin, but that is a theory that later proved to be incorrect. They also attempted to answer some of the still-unanswered questions of the time: Could the moon support life? Did it have an atmosphere? How exactly did its craters and other features form? It was this last question in particular that interested Nasmyth.
Before co-writing the book, Nasmyth spent decades moon gazing — mainly through a 20-inch reflector telescope mounted on a special turntable, both of which he designed himself — and developing his various hypothesis of its origin, internal structure and geology. In The Moon, Nasmyth argues that as the lunar sphere cooled and solidified, it also expanded, thus forming its characteristic hollows, mountain ranges, chasms and radiating streaks.
Nasmyth wanted to create photos to illustrate the book and his theories, but with photography still in its infancy and no suitable technology to allow photographs to be taken directly through a telescope, he came up with a different and ingenious method: Aiming to “faithfully reproduce the lunar effects of light and shadow,” he built accurate plaster models of the moon’s surface in meticulous detail from sketches he drew by peering though his self-made telescope. Nasmyth then photographed the models against a black background and shined a bright light on them at an angle to mimic the rays of sunlight hitting the moon’s numerous craters and mountains.
“The illustrations to this book are so admirable, so far beyond those one generally gets of any celestial phenomenon, that one is tempted to refer to them first of all,” a reviewer for the journal, Nature, wrote in 1874 when the book was published. “No more truthful or striking representations of natural objects than those here presented have ever been laid before his readers by any student of Science; and I may add that, rarely, if ever, have equal pains been taken to insure such truthfulness.”
Looking at Nasmyth’s detailed and close-up images, astronomers could get the feeling of actually being there on the moon, which is the same feeling that has motivated manned space exploration throughout the last half-century. Even though fake, the photographs are — as NASA noted — “more realistic than the images that could be achieved by telescope photography at that time.” This is ironic, given the fact that when the Apollo missions beamed home actual images and footage of the moon’s surface a century later, NASA and the government were accused of faking it all — a theory some people believe even to this day.
Nasmyth’s and Carpenter’s book was popular in its day, with four editions printed. It contains speculation on “the peculiar conditions which would attend a sojourn on the lunar surface,” and a consideration of the many benefits the moon daily bestows upon us earthlings. Beyond helping sailors to navigate at night and “cleansing the shores of our seas and rivers through the agency of the tides,” one of the most interesting ideas Nasmyth puts forth concerns the “stupendous reservoir of power that the tidal waters constitute.” He suggests that this energy “may be invoked by-and-by, when we have begun to feel more acutely the consequences of our present prodigal use of the fuel that was stored up for us by bountiful nature ages upon ages ago.”
If you are interested in reading the book and seeing more of Nasmyth’s images, there is a digital version in the public domain at archive.org.