On this day in 1907, the German pharmacist and amateur photographer Julius Neubronner submitted a patent for a method of taking aerial photographs, using a specially adapted camera attached to a pigeon. It meant that for the first time bird’s-eye-view photographs could be taken of the Earth relatively cheaply, and for its ingenuity brought Neubronner international acclaim, and several prestigious awards.
Neubronner was born in 1852 in the provincial town of Kronberg in Taunus, then in the Duchy of Nassau, now in modern day Germany. He came from a long line of distinguished apothecaries, a profession he was destined to enter from a young age. He studied pharmacy and chemistry at university, initially in Berlin, and then in Heidelberg, where he gained his doctorate in 1879. After completing his studies he returned to Kronberg in Taunus to work for the family firm, taking over from his father as director of the business in 1886.
Neubronner’s idea for the pigeon camera came from his father, who had developed a system for delivering small doses of medicine by pigeon post. The system was efficient and reliable, but gradually became obsolete as Kronberg’s neighbouring towns got their own pharmacies and deliveries became unnecessary.
When Neubronner took over the business, more out of whim than necessity, he revived the practice, and soon began to develop other uses for the pigeons. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he had maintained a keen interest in photography, and by the time he was a young man had built up considerable expertise on the subject. The combining of photography with his fleet of carrier pigeons seemed the next logical step.
The design that Neubronner came up with was relatively crude. It consisted of a lightweight aluminium harness that could be strapped around the pigeon’s midriff with leather straps. A tiny camera, with a time-lapse facility was attached to the harness, which would then take a series of photographs when the pigeon was flown over a given area.
After several months tinkering with the invention, the method was presented to the public in a series of demonstrations from 1909. Not one to miss a commercial opportunity, Neubronner worked out a system whereby spectators could watch the arrival of the camera-laden pigeons, and then immediately purchase the hastily developed photographs. The technique so captured the imagination, that at both the 1910 and 1911 Paris Air Show Neubronner was awarded a gold medal, one for the innovative technique, and the other for the spectacular photographs.
The pigeon camera had obvious potential when it came to intelligence gathering, and a number of experiments were conducted using Neubronner’s invention. However, the advent of the pigeon camera coincided with considerable advances in powered aviation, and Neubronner’s pigeons were soon deemed impractical when it came to precise military surveillance. So in the end, Neubronner’s invention remained one of limited practical use, but was nonetheless pioneering in its day, and a significant achievement in the history of aerial photography.
Credit: Photo by Julius Neubronner
Caption: Neubronner’s cameras gave the earth-bound an easy and inexpensive way to view the world from a bird’s-eye-view.