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The Pigeons Who Took Photos

At the turn of the last century, when aviation was still in its infancy, a German named Julius Neubronner submitted a patent for a new invention—a miniature camera that could be strapped to the breast of a pigeon so that the bird could take flight and snap pictures from the air.

Julius Neubronner was an apothecary who employed pigeons to deliver medications to a sanatorium located near his hometown Kronberg, near Frankfurt. An apothecary is one who makes medicines. A pharmacist is a more modern word, but in many German speaking countries, such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, pharmacies are still called apothecaries.

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Apothecary was Julius Neubronner’s family profession. His father was an apothecary, and so was his grandfather. In those days, homing pigeons were used extensively to carry messages and small supplies. It was Julius’s father’s idea to use pigeons to receive prescriptions from the sanatorium and send out medicinal supplies in a hurry—a practice that continued for more than half a century until the sanatorium closed.

One day, Neubronner let out a pigeon on an urgent errand but it didn’t return. When several days passed and there was still no sign of the bird, Neubronner assumed the pigeon was lost, or it got caught and killed by predators. A month later, the lost messenger showed up unexpectedly at Neubronner’s place. The bird appeared well fed, which got Neubronner into thinking. Where had he gone? Who had fed him?

Neubronner decided that he would start tracking his pigeons’ future travels.

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Julius Neubronner with one of his pigeons.

Being a passionate do-it-yourself amateur photographer, it didn’t take long for Neubronner to fashion a miniature wooden camera which he fitted to the pigeon’s breast by means of a harness and an aluminum cuirass. A pneumatic system in the camera opened the shutter at predetermined intervals and the roll of film, which moved along with the shutter, took as many as thirty exposures in a single flight. The entire rig weighed no more than 75 grams—the maximum load the pigeons were trained to carry.

The pictures turned out so good that Neubronner started making different models. One system, for instance, was fitted with two lenses pointing in opposite directions. Another one took stereoscopic images. Eventually, Neubronner applied for a patent, but the patent office threw out his application citing that such a device was impossible as they believed a pigeon could not carry the weight of a camera. But when Neubronner presented photographs taken by his pigeons, the patent was granted in 1908.

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Aerial photograph of Frankfurt.

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Aerial photograph of Schlosshotel Kronberg.

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Neubronner exhibited his photographs in several international photographic exhibition gaining him accolades. In one such exhibition in Dresden, spectators watched as the camera-equipped carrier pigeons arrived at the venue, and the photos were immediately developed and turned into postcards which they could purchase.

The technology was soon adapted for use during the First World War, despite the availability of surveillance aircraft then. Pigeons drew less attention, could photograph enemy locations from a lower height, and were visibly indifferent to explosions on a battlefield.

Neubronner’s avian technology saw use in the Second World War too. The German army developed a pigeon camera capable of taking 200 exposures per flight. The French too claimed they had cameras for pigeons and a method to deploy them behind enemy lines by trained dogs. Around this time, Swiss clockmaker Christian Adrian Michel perfected a panoramic camera and an improved mechanism to control the shutter. Pigeon photography was in use as late as the 1970s, when the CIA developed a battery-powered pigeon camera, though the details of the camera's use are still classified.

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Aerial photographs of Dresden.

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Today, aerial photography has been replaced by aircrafts, satellites, and more recently, by affordable drones. But the legacy of Julius Neubronner’s pigeon photography lives on in these images which are among the very early photos taken of Earth from above.

Bonus fact: So what happened to Neubronner’s pigeon who stayed away from the owner for a month and returned fattened up? It had flown away to Wiesbaden, some twenty kilometers away, and was taken care of by a restaurant chef.

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1 comment:

  1. Amazing quality of the photographs and even more amazing are the pigeons they should have a monument or at least a plaque!

    ReplyDelete

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