The Man Who Built the World’s Biggest Camera

By John Wade Back to


The year was 1899. The Chicago and Alton Railway Company had built what they called “the handsomest train in the world.” Now they wanted a picture of it. They called in Chicago photographer George R. Lawrence, and he suggested that he would shoot the largest picture in the world—and to accomplish this, he would build the world’s biggest camera.

It was a bold statement, but Lawrence ran a studio whose slogan was “The Hitherto Impossible in Photography Is Our Specialty.” If anyone could do it, he could. In 1888, at the age of 20, Lawrence already had a reputation as an inventor. He had built a telegraph system, made a gun in his own forge and was fascinated by building devices to simplify household tasks that included an elementary form of washing machine.

In 1891, he opened a photographic studio in Chicago. Despite knowing little about chemistry, he began experimenting with flash photography. Undeterred by explosions and accidents that burned off his hair, eyebrows and mustache, he eventually developed a formula for a flash powder that gave more light with less smoke than before, earning himself the nickname of Flashlight Lawrence.

He became a specialist in banquet photography, using a panoramic camera and placing flash powder in up to 350 spots around a room, fired simultaneously by a single electrical charge. Lawrence was also a pioneer of aerial photography, first from high towers, then from a cage attached to a balloon, an enterprise which nearly killed him when the cage became detached 200 feet up, plummeting him to the ground, his fall broken only by telephone wires.

Following the accident—from which he escaped unharmed—Lawrence moved on to shoot aerial pictures using a camera attached to a kite, or sometimes a string of kites. He shot a panoramic picture of the ruins of San Francisco, following the 1906 earthquake using this technique. Sales from the picture around the world earned him $15,000. Lawrence, undoubtedly, was a special type of photographer, which was no doubt why the Chicago and Alton Railway Company called him in to photograph their new train. It was like no other.

All windows were of the same size, shape and style. Every carriage was the same size, length and height. The coal tender was made to the same height as the carriages behind it. They called it The Alton Limited, and ran it from Chicago to St. Louis. With his interest in panoramic photography, Lawrence’s initial thought was to take a series of pictures, to be joined during the printing process. The railroad company, however, having built the perfect train, didn’t want an imperfect picture with joins in it.

So Lawrence proposed building an enormous camera to shoot a picture on a single glass plate measuring 4.5×8 feet−larger than any other photographic plate ever exposed. The camera was to be called the Mammoth. He got the go-ahead. These were the days when cameras were mostly made of wood and very few used rolls of film. Instead, pictures were taken on glass plates, loaded into the camera and shot one at a time.

To manufacture the camera, Lawrence turned to J.A. Anderson in Chicago. The company was already making wooden studio cameras and only three years be- fore had made the Anderson Tailboard Camera, which could almost have been a miniature model for the Mammoth. The tailboard design featured a lens panel at the front, linked by bellows to a ground glass-screen at the back, which moved on a track to focus the lens. The picture was first focused on the screen, and then the plate holder was placed into position for the exposure. What Lawrence needed was a much larger version of a similar design.

The Mammoth was made at the Anderson works, using cherry wood. It had two focusing screens made from celluloid that moved back and forth like sliding doors. The bed of the camera was 20 feet long and supported on four 2×6 inch cherry beams. The bellows moved on steel track wheels in four sections−two square and two cone-shaped−and were made of rubber with each fold stiffened by a quarter-inch slat of wood. Two more canvas linings inside made it light proof. More than 500 feet of wood and 40 gallons of cement were used to build the bellows alone.

The plate holder was equipped with a roller blind made from 80 square feet of ash wood, lined with three thicknesses of light-proof material, to cover the plate’s light-sensitive surface prior to the exposure. It slid up and down on ball bearing rollers spaced every two inches. These reduced friction to such an extent that a 14-year-old boy could operate it.

Wide-angle and telephoto lenses were built to a German Carl Zeiss design and were the largest photographic lenses ever made. The wide-angle had a focal length of 5.5 feet and the telephoto focal length was 10 feet.

The photographic plates were made by the Cramer Company in St. Louis, who also manufactured the sensitized paper that was used to contact print the negative plate. Coating the plates with the light-sensitive emulsion involved laying them flat on a huge marble slab, with sheets of ice beneath it to rapidly cool the emulsion as it was applied. The plates cost $1,800 for 12.

The Mammoth took eight months to design and build at a reputed cost of $5,000. With its plate holder fitted it weighed 1,400 pounds and took 15 men to operate. The camera was made in sections like smaller and more conventional cameras; folding the bellows from the full 20 feet extension down to three feet could reduce its size. Even so, it took at least half a dozen men to load it into the back of a horse-drawn wagon that transported it to the Chicago and Alton Station. There, it was transferred to a flat car, pulled by one of the company’s locomotives. Fifteen men, many in suits, starched collars and bowler hats climbed aboard and the train made for Brighton Park, about six miles from Chicago, where the camera was assembled a quarter of a mile from the tracks to photograph the waiting train.

It took at least six men to manipulate the bellows and focus the lens on the screen at the back, and four men to get the huge photographic plate in its holder onto the back of the camera. But before the exposure was made, the plate had to be checked to ensure that no dust or dirt had accumulated during its journey to the site. For this the camera’s front panel that supported the lens was opened and a man stepped inside. The door was closed and a red filter was placed over the lens. Since the plate was insensitive to red light, the roller blind could then be safely rolled up so that the man could see, by the red light from the lens, to remove any dust or dirt from the plate. The roller blind was then rolled down, the lens filter removed and the front panel opened for the man to exit.

A lens cap was placed over the lens and the roller blind once more rolled up to expose the sensitive surface of the plate to the capped lens. On a bright and sunny day in the spring of 1900, Lawrence made the exposure by removing the lens cap for two and half minutes and then putting it back into place. The roller blind was rolled down and the plate holder removed. Transported to a darkroom the plate was then developed and three contact prints made from it. The process took ten gallons of chemicals.

The prints were sent to the Paris Exposition of 1900, where they were at first thought to be fakes. The French Consul General was sent from New York to Chicago to inspect the camera. When he saw it he became convinced of the picture’s authenticity. As a result, the French Exposition officials awarded George R. Lawrence, user of the world’s biggest camera and photographer of the world’s largest picture, the Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence.

Pictures of the Mammoth being built and transported are from the pamphlet The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest Train in the World. Courtesy of the Charlie Kamerman collection.

About the Author

John Wade
John Wade began his journalistic career on local newspapers, working his way from junior reporter to deputy editor. He was editor of Photography magazine in the UK for seven years before becoming a freelance writer and photographer 25 years ago. He has written more than 30 books on photographic history and photo techniques and has lately turned his attention to self-publishing his own books on classic cameras.