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.