To John Kuehne, Austin was a wonderland of color

Early UT physics professor took rare color shots of the early 20th-century city

We tend to picture Austin’s distant past in black and white. For more than 100 years — from the 1820s to the 1930s — most photographic images were rendered in variations of just two hues.

As early as the 1850s, however, photographers were tinkering with a range of colors. Among the pioneers was a University of Texas physics professor named John Kuehne.

Using the autochrome technique of capturing images on glass, the founder of the university’s photography program produced startling color pictures of Austin during the first decades of the 20th century.

Some of the campus shots were reproduced in a recent issue of the Alcalde, the indispensable magazine of the Texas Exes alumni group. Several dozen additional gems are housed at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.

“We’d like to digitize all of them as soon as possible,” Briscoe photo archivist Amy Bowman says. “The color dyes used in autochromes are extremely vulnerable, and you can see how many of them are fading. They’re in good storage conditions, so we can delay this deterioration, but we can’t reverse it.”

Most of the surviving color-on-glass samples — the Briscoe holds numerous back-and-white Kuehne images as well — are static, landscapes or buildings or groups of people. Nevertheless, they lend insight into life around Austin, at least in the relatively favored precincts frequented by UT faculty members, students and their families.

Suggesting a life of leisure and ease, several images record participants in a parade — perhaps the Texas Independence Day fête of 1916 — featuring intricately decorated automobiles. Others show students — clearly in apparel from the 1910s — posed near older buildings on campus. A favorite Kuehne strategy was to catch Austinites at recreational spots such as parks, swimming holes or romantic settings such as Anderson Mill, whose original ruins have long since been submerged in the waters of Lake Travis.

Who was Kuehne?

Namesake of UT’s Kuehne Physics Mathematics Astronomy Library, John Matthias Kuehne was not closely related to architect Hugo Kuehne, his near contemporary, responsible for so many Austin landmarks built during the early to mid-20th century.

According to an undated memorandum found in UT’s Digital Library, the physics professor was born in 1872 in Hallettsville to German immigrant parents who were farmers as well as schoolteachers.

“He said he learned to read sitting on a plow behind a horse,” the memo reveals. “He had planned to be a farmer when his parents persuaded him to attend summer normal (teacher training school) in Hallettsville.”

Kuehne began his studies in physics and mathematics at UT in 1896, only 13 years after the college opened. He was tutoring by 1899. In 1900, he married Mary Wild, his roommate’s sister — also a former grade-school pupil of his from pre-UT teaching days. He later described her as “tall, graceful and very charming.” They had two daughters.

Kuehne’s doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Chicago, dealt with magnetic fields, and his early work helped establish Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory. He rose rapidly in UT’s ranks and was named a charter member of the reorganized Texas Academy of Sciences in 1929. In 1951, after at least 50 years as a faculty member, he resigned to become professor emeritus. He died in 1960 at age 87.

The very model of an old-school professor, Kuehne’s humor-laced teaching techniques were not easily forgotten.

“The tall, straight professor with the shock of snow-white hair and well-trimmed mustache and goatee strode quietly into the amphitheater classroom,” reads one magazine profile. “As students listened to his remarks, which were almost invariably punctured with gestures, they soon realized they were being told how to determine temperature by counting the number of chirps of a cricket in one minute. With only a twinkle in his eyes to betray him, the professor patiently explained that the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit is 37-plus the number of chirps per minute of the Oecanthus niveus (or green tree cricket) divided by four.”

On lenses

Kuehne had always expressed an interest in optics and astronomy, so it was natural that he helped select the location and the design of the McDonald Observatory, built in accordance with a surprise $1.2 million bequest from William J. McDonald of Paris, Texas. Newspaper clippings reveal that there was a brief push to locate the observatory, now in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, on Mount Bonnell, which would have rendered it useless once Austin grew into a city.

Kuehne also made sure a 9-inch refracting student telescope was added to the design of the UT Physics Building.

Not just a man of science, Kuehne loved music and rarely missed a symphonic performance, according to a 1942 Daily Texan article. He also appeared as an actor in productions at the Austin Little Theatre, predecessor to Zach Theatre.

In 1908, Kuehne taught the first photography course at the university in the basement of the Old Main Building (long since replaced by the UT Tower). He also organized the Austin Camera Club.

Many of his images, candid and otherwise, are available on a website devoted to the history of the UT physics department. Although he never claimed to be an artist, Kuehne and his students often exhibited their works.

“Dr. Kuehne and his protegees, armed with their photographic equipment, have invaded the semi-mountainous, wooded regions near Austin in quest of propitious landscapes,” reads one newspaper review, unfortunately undated. “They have made ‘shots’ of rivulets, cataracts and fields of wildflowers. … (Also) calm, nocturnal marine scenes, brilliant snow scenes, interesting portraits, animal pictures and wildflower scenes are there for the art lover’s study.”

Upon his death, the Kuehne family gave his collection of glass-plate negatives to UT.

Married for more than 50 years, John and Mary Kuehne appeared to live a charmed private life as well. A delightful website composed by Charlotte Carl-Mitchell,, records the memories of the Kuehnes’ neighbors in great detail. In later years, they lived at Houston and Sunshine streets, just southeast of the site of McCallum High School, in a German-style house on a large parcel of gardened land.

“The house was huge … with a large railing where you could see into the downstairs area,” one neighbor recalled from childhood. “There were secret passages, stairways and escape routes. There were three separate basements. … We used to look for pink bluebonnets on the grounds — and found them. There were hundreds of places to play on that estate.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Lifestyle

Pairing the Ballet Austin Fête with the Thinkery’s Imaginarium
Pairing the Ballet Austin Fête with the Thinkery’s Imaginarium

Well, it finally happened. The JW Marriott Hotel, which combines acres of social space with pretty high-quality hospitality, hosted two big, beloved galas on separate floors on the same night. It really was a treat for a social columnist to move effortlessly between these events by way of a long, gliding escalator...
Plan your October with these Austin family events
Plan your October with these Austin family events

October is full of family-friendly events to try. Set your calendar for these events: Barton Hill Farms in Bastrop opened its corn maze for the season. You ll find a pumpkin patch, farm animals, face painting, a 2,000-square-foot jumping pillow, a train and food. Barton Hill Farms Events Lantern Festival. Release lanterns, dance...
Is playing on a sports team making your child sick?
Is playing on a sports team making your child sick?

We love when kids play sports. They are getting physical fitness, and they are learning important lessons about working with other people, perseverance and mental toughness. Sports teams can spread diseases if they aren’t careful. JOHN GUTIERREZ / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN But coming in contact with so many other people on the field...
Should you get a flu shot if you’re pregnant?
Should you get a flu shot if you’re pregnant?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” You might have seen stories about a study that was done in 2015 that looked at flu shots and incidents of miscarriages.  Kim Reyes, 38, cradles her newborn daughter, Jennifer, at their home in Southwest Austin in 2014. While she was pregnant, Reyes nearly died of the H1N1 flu. (Tamir...
Heidi Cohn takes over as executive director of the Trail Foundation
Heidi Cohn takes over as executive director of the Trail Foundation

Every morning, Heidi Cohn parks her car on the south side of Lady Bird Lake, then crunches along a gravel pathway, catching views of rowers and runners as she walks the last half-mile to her job as executive director of the Trail Foundation. Along the way, she also gets an up-close look at the biggest challenge now facing the Ann and Roy Butler Hike...
More Stories