Although pigeons nowadays are largely regarded as grubby urban pests, bumblers for bread crumbs, and unwelcome statuary redecorators — in the not-too-distant past, their service to mankind was much loftier indeed. Not only were these hardy birds used to swiftly carry important messages and materials across great distances, for a brief stint at the turn of the last century, an elite group of camera-wielding pigeons also became early pioneers of a then burgeoning field: aerial photography.
In 1903, a German pharmacist named Julius Neubronner started employing carrier pigeons to receive and fulfill emergency prescriptions from a hospital in the region. One day, after a bird of his mysteriously returned after being lost a month late, Julius began to devise a way to track their flights.
Shortly after, the avid tinkerer and amateur photographer developed a lightweight, timer camera rig that his pigeons could wear in flight to snap rare aerial photos, the likes of which, at the time, could only be captured via balloons or kites.
According to Neubronner, there were a dozen different models of his camera. In 1907 he had sufficient success to apply for a patent. Initially his invention “Method of and Means for Taking Photographs of Landscapes from Above” was rejected by the German patent office as impossible, but after presentation of authenticated photographs the patent was granted in December 1908.
It didn’t take long before that charmingly inventive pigeon photography found application in less amusing arenas. During the both World Wars, various militaries experimented in the using camera-strapped pigeons on reconnaissance missions, though it’s unclear how helpful these photographs actually were.
In the years following, interest in pigeon photography persisted. According to some reports, still mostly classified, the CIA attached battery operated cameras to the birds even as late as the 1970s.
- These 100-Year-Old Aerial Photos Were Taken by Pigeons (treehugger.com)