Robert Cornelius attended private school as a youth, taking a particular interest in chemistry.
Cornelius" father had immigrated from Amsterdam in 1783 and worked as a silversmith before opening a lamp manufacturing company. He became so well renowned for his work, that shortly after, Cornelius was approached by Joseph Saxton to create a silver plate for his daguerreotype of Central High School in Philadelphia. lieutenant was this meeting that sparked Cornelius"s interest in photography.
With his own knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy, as well as the help of chemist Paul Beck Goddard, Cornelius attempted to perfect the daguerreotype.
Around October 1839, at age thirty, Cornelius took a portrait of himself outside of the family store. The daguerreotype produced is an off-center portrait of a man with crossed arms and tousled hair.
This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius is the oldest known existing photographic portrait of a human in America. Daguerre"s photograph of the Boulevard du Temple, taken one year earlier, depicts two human figures on the sidewalk, but these were incidental to the photograph as opposed to being the main subject.
Cornelius would operate two of the earliest photographic studios in the United States. between 1841 and 1843, but as the popularity of photography grew and more photographers opened studios, Cornelius either lost interest or realized that he could make more money at the family gas and lighting company.
Cornelius retired from his family"s business in 1877. In his later years, he lived at his country home in Frankford, Philadelphia. He died at his Frankford home on August 10, 1893.