CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – The fate of the original photograph remains somewhat of a mystery. Shortly after that night in 1963, when a young Army photographer named Dewey Browder stood atop Pikes Peak in Colorado and snapped the first picture of light coming from a laser, the National Bureau of Standards sent the image off to the Smithsonian Institute. That’s where the trail goes cold. The picture was never seen again.
Here’s what likely happened - when the photo arrived in Washington, D.C., it was placed in a cardboard box and put in storage because the American History Museum’s Electricity Collection was moving into a newly built facility. The historic picture is probably still in that box, locked away in some enormous warehouse with other forgotten treasures.
Luckily Browder, now an Austin Peay State University professor and chair of the University’s history department, had a few extra copies of that photograph. On April 8, he traveled to the nation’s Capitol and presented the famed institute with an original copy of the long-lost image.
“They now have the original and a copy. The negative is there somewhere too,” Browder said. “And they gave me a deed of gift from the Smithsonian.”
Browder first became suspicious that the picture was missing in the mid-1990s, when he read about a new laser light collection at the Institute. The APSU professor called to make sure they had a copy of his photo.
“They said they couldn’t find it,” Browder said. “So, I sent another copy, along with the newspaper and the Army commendation I received for taking that first photo.”
Case closed, right? Apparently not. This last December, Browder received word from Greg Kaufmann, former director of the APSU Institute for Global Security Studies. Kaufmann now works as an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense at the Pentagon.
“He told me they had a new exhibit for the laser light and my picture was not among the ones they were exhibiting,” Browder said.
This seemed odd since any exhibit on the laser light would surely want to include the very first photograph of that light. A few months later, Browder traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress as part of the Citizens for Fort Campbell delegation. While in town, he decided to visit the Smithsonian. That’s how he met Harold “Hal” Wallace, curator of the museum’s Electricity Collection.
“He said he would love to see what I’ve got, so I sent him a copy of the photo and the newspaper articles and documentation,” Browder said. “He checked everything out and said, yes, he’d love to have it. I went back up there and gave him a copy of the original photo.”
After being recognized for his contribution to the Smithsonian, Browder was given a backroom tour of the museum’s holdings. That private tour allowed him to see and touch (in its cellophane sleeve) the very first message sent by telegraph, which read “What Hath God Wrought,” along with the original telegraph sending device and receiving device.
“They showed me Alexander Graham Bell’s mouthpiece used for the first telephone, and a generator from the 18th century,” he said. “I also got to see the full array of the items in their laser collection.”
That collection now includes the very first photo taken of a laser’s light. And the deed of gift presented to Browder allows him to track the image within the museum’s collection, insuring that this time it will stay put.