The oldest known photograph in existence today was captured between 1826 and 1827 in France. People were amazed by photography at that time. But the initial excitement quickly gave way to curiosity.
Those early black and white photos never truly represented the scenes on display. Thus began humanity’s quest to take color photographs showing the world in its full beauty.
It was not until the late 19th century that scientists would experiment to produce colorized photos. And it was much later still (during the 20th century) when color cameras became readily available.
Consequently, many of history’s defining moments lack a dimension of life in their original images. It is the job of artists and historians to try and regain the lost information by accurately adding color to black and white photos.
In its earliest form, colorization involved manually painting or drawing different shades onto a black and white print. Though simple, this process took a long time, and the resulting colorized photos were works of art. Nowadays, we have many more tools at our disposal to do this faster. That said, it is still complicated to colorize an image. Doing so requires patience, research, and respect for historical accuracy.
Thanks to computers, editing software, and internet archives, we can now look at more pictures from the past in glorious color than ever before. Here is a selection of 40 jaw-dropping colorized photos of famous people, events, or periods in history.
Mankind’s First Airplane
This photo depicts one of the Wright brothers during a test flight of a glider in 1902. This was shortly before they achieved their aim of flying the first aircraft unaided in 1903.
The Gold Rush
This photograph is of part of modern-day Chinatown in San Francisco. It is from 1861 during the Gold Rush.
The End Of The Civil War
This image is of General Robert Lee officially surrendering on behalf of his army in Virginia, April 1865. This brought the American Civil War to a close.
Groundbreaking Scientific Research
Pictured here is the Polish-French scientist Marie Curie at work in her laboratory in Paris. She is best known for important discoveries in the field of radioactivity.
Searching For A Better Life
Upon their arrival in America in the 1930s, a family of immigrants looks towards the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island.
Riding The Subway
A group of women dressed in formal clothing is seen here on the New York subway system. This picture is from around 1910.
Children gather to lick blocks of ice on a hot day in July 1912 in New York.
On The Brink Of War
The Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand is pictured during a visit to Sarajevo. His assassination followed five minutes later, and the outbreak of World War 1 came soon thereafter.
Training For War
This is just one of many colorized photos from the time of the world wars. In this scene, a British general teaches an American soldier about using a bayonet in combat.
The Battle Of The Somme
One of the most costly and miserable periods of the First World War was the Battle of the Somme. Above, you can see a platoon of Irish soldiers in the trenches in 1916.
A Christmas Ceasefire
Among the horrific bloodshed of World War 1 was an unexpected and heartwarming ceasefire. Around Christmas time in 1914, British and German soldiers stopped fighting in the trenches to have friendly conversations, exchange gifts, and play soccer.
The Golden Gate Bridge Under Construction
Taken in the 1930s, this image shows perhaps America’s most famous bridge being built, with only its pillars in place.
“Lunch Atop A Skyscraper”
Of all the selected colorized photos, this depicts one of the most recognizable scenes of the 20th century. Construction workers pose for a picture while stopping for lunch, 800 feet above the ground. This is from 1932.
News Of A Disaster Spreads
In the aftermath of the fatal 1912 Titanic disaster, a paperboy in London brings the news to shocked readers.
An Early 19th Century Firefighter
This is what the fire brigade in London wore in 1908.
An Early Fire Truck
Here is a shot from almost the same time as the last picture. In New York in 1910, fire trucks were powered by horses.
The Great Depression
Unemployed men queue up outside a soup kitchen, hoping to receive some food. This was during the great depression in 1931.
A Migrant Worker
Another of the well-known colorized photos from the great depression in 1936. A migrant woman consoles her children during this tough financial period.
The End Of Prohibition
In December 1933, US citizens welcomed the end of alcohol prohibition in style.
A young boy is pictured during the dustbowl storms in Oklahoma in 1936.
The World Is Gripped By War Again
April 1940: Adolf Hitler salutes his soldiers as they march eastwards. Producing colorized photos like these requires accurate historical knowledge of equipment and clothing.
The Soviet Union Fights Back
Soviet soldiers make a charge during the siege of Leningrad, 1943.
A Gift For Hitler
In 1944, African-American soldiers smiled for the camera after decorating their artillery amusingly.
In June 1944, the allied powers landed on the beaches of Normandy to initiate the liberation of France.
The End Of World War 2
After conquering Berlin in May 1945, the Soviets raised their flag on top of the Reichstag (German parliament) to signal victory.
The Oldest Man Ever?
Chief John Smith had his portrait taken here in around 1915. When he died in 1922, he was 96-100 years old. However, some have claimed that he actually lived to an astonishing 137 years of age!
The First Bulletproof Vest
In Washington D.C., a prototype of the bulletproof vest is put to the test by its creator (1923).
Lee Harvey Oswald’s Arrest
The suspect of another significant assassination in history, Lee Harvey Oswald. This is a picture of his arrest in November 1963. He was shot and killed very soon after.
I Have A Dream
The civil rights activist Martin Luther King is pictured here on the podium, delivering his famous 1963 speech.
The renowned author is captured in this shot, sitting in his garden towards the end of his life. Colorized photos like this give us a refreshing view of important historical figures.
The First Black MLB Player
Jackie Robinson (photographed above in 1954) became the first black man to play in the MLB. This is the most prestigious baseball league in America.
A Dangerous Job
1930: A New York construction worker tightens a bolt while helping to build the Empire State Building.
Racial Tensions In America
People are seen here protesting against the mixing of races in Arkansas schools. This demonstration took place in 1959.
Colorized photos can also shed light on controversial people from past years. This is Pablo Escobar after he was captured by police in Colombia, 1977.
One of the great scientists of the 20th century is best remembered for his work on theoretical physics. This is him in 1921.
One of the most recognizable beauty figures in recent memory was Marilyn Monroe, who died young in 1962. This is a portrait of her from 1957.
Malcolm X was an important human rights activist for black Americans. This is a photo of him in 1964, waiting to start a press conference.
One of the most studied directors in history, Alfred Hitchcock, directs while on set in 1963.
Charles Darwin, who set the foundations for the theory of evolution, is in the picture above (the date is unknown).
America’s then-president Abraham Lincoln, pictured on the battlefield during the Civil War in 1862.
Which Colorized Photos Were Your Favourite?
We can never know exactly how accurate these colorized photos are. What is certain is that a bit of color can make a huge impact, and black and white photographs are gradually coming to life. The efforts of dedicated enthusiasts are making up for the lack of color photography in the past.
These improved images could maybe bring people closer to events that once felt distant. They may even inspire the next generation to study history with more enthusiasm, which can only be a positive.