Held at: The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute [Contact Us]222 N 20th St, Philadelphia, PA, 19103
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
William N. Jennings (1860-1946) was a photographer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania best known for being credited with the first successful photograph of lightning and his work in aerial photography.
William Nicholson Jennings (1860-1946) was born in England to a prosperous mill owner with a large family, but they fell on hard times and Jennings immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1879. He worked as a typist at John Wanamaker's store and later, at the Pennsylvania Railroad. Initially, photography was a hobby of Jennings's, but after some of his images from a railroad construction site helped the Pennsylvania Railroad win a law suit, the company hired him as a photographer. In 1889, Jennings was sent to capture images from the Johnstown flood. Jennings also worked for construction businesses, photographing the erection of new buildings in the Delaware Valley.
Jennings is credited with capturing the first successful photograph of lightning, which he did at the very beginning of his career as a professional photographer, on September 2, 1882. In 1893, Jennings took aerial photographs of Philadelphia from an untethered balloon in Fairmount Park. Prior to this, photographers had difficulty obtaining clear images from high in the air, but Jennings determined the proper camera, filter, and lens needed to achieve clear aerial photographs. By 1900, Jennings was freelancing for Philadelphia's newspapers and industries. He and a balloonist were hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer to travel to various cities taking aerial photographs in 1906, but the project was cancelled because it was deemed to dangerous by the publisher.
Jennings married later in life and he and his wife, Mary, had twins, Sarah and William, and another son, Ralph within the span of two years. Jennings took several photographs of his family from childhood to adulthood, including during the summers of 1911, 1912, and 1913, which the family spent at their vacation campsite, Fern Bank Camp, on the Wissahickon Creek in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Roxborough.
Jennings completed aerial work for the Aero Service Corporation and his invention of a fixed-focus camera for the airplane and aerial photography techniques made him a pioneer in capturing images from airplanes. His work was highly influential in developing aerial reconnaissance during World War I. In addition to aerials, Jennings took a great number of photographs of Philadelphia buildings, street scenes, and parades. He was selected as the city's official photographer for the 1926 Sesquicentennial celebration and was awarded the Wetherill medal from The Franklin Institute in 1930 for his photographic investigation of lightning, which proved that lightning did not have a zigzag pattern, but instead forked and branched. Jennings was hired to capture images from the Philadelphia Phillies's first night game at Shibe Park when he was 79. Jennings passed away at the age of 85 in 1946.
Avery, Ron. "He Reached The Heights." Philadelphia Daily News (Philadelphia, PA), July 8, 1992. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://articles.philly.com/1992-07-08/news/26028262_1_photo-book-construction-work-schuylkill-river.
Silcox, Harry. Jennings' Philadelphia: The Life of Philadelphia Photographer William Nicholson Jennings (1860-1946). Philadelphia, PA: Brighton Press, 1993.
Weatherwax, Sarah J. "William Nicholson Jennings (1860-1946)." September 2010. Accessed September 9, 2016. http://www.librarycompany.org/collections/prints/archive/cfav/sept2010.htm.
William N. Jennings scrapbook, photographs, and negatives, 1882-1937, consist of Jennings's scrapbook documenting his efforts to photograph lightning, including prints of the first photograph of lightning, as well as photographs, film negatives, and glass plate negatives of people at street scenes in Philadelphia, PA and nearby areas. There is also one oversized item consisting of mounted images of lightning.
The scrapbook was Jennings's personal scrapbook, which he titled "Jove's Autograph." It contains prints of the first photograph of lightning and other materials including additional photographs; letters between Jennings and other scientists, such as Thomas Edison, Elihu Thomson, and George Eastman; and newspaper clippings and journal articles documenting lightning and his attempts and successes at capturing photographs of it. There is also an oversized item with eleven mounted images of lightning, 1882-1896.
There are also a number of images in the collection, including print photographs, film negatives, and glass plates. The images depict buildings and other structures, people, and street scenes from Philadelphia, PA and nearby locations. An inventory is available on-site.
Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2014-2016 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.
In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute directly for more information.
- The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Sarah Leu and Anastasia Matijkiw through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
- This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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