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.”

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