The first images taken of the Earth from above were taken by balloons and kites. But next on the list were pigeons. Yes, those birds that urban-dwellers love to hate were sent to the skies, where they captured views few had seen before.
German inventor Julius Neubronner began working with pigeons in 1907. The Wright brothers first flight was just four years earlier, so seeing the world from a bird's-eye view was a wholly new thing. Neubronner had already been working with homing pigeons to deliver the medications he mixed up for his patients, and he knew what the birds were capable of.
He designed a lightweight breast harness fitted on the birds that was attached to a two-lens camera.
Julius Neubronner with a homing pigeon photographer. At right, Neubronner's patented pigeon camera with two lenses, with cuirass and harness. (Photo: Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt/Wikimedia Commons)
The pigeons were trained to carry the cameras, which weighed from a little over an ounce to 2.6 ounces, which was equivalent to the weight of the medications they had previously carried.
Before setting the birds free, Neubronner would inflate the left-hand chamber. The air would slowly escape as the bird took off into the sky, and when it was deflated, it would activate a piston to trigger the shutter to snap a picture — basically this was like a mechanical version of a camera timer anyone of us might use today.
The pigeons were taken about 60 miles away from home, then released. Since the birds didn't want to carry their load any further than they had to, they would make a beeline for home, flying at heights of anywhere from 150-300 feet.
Aerial images from Julius Neubronner's camera strapped to a homing pigeon, including one with wing tips visible on the edges of Schlosshotel Kronberg. The bottom image is of the city of Frankfurt. (Photo: Julius Neubronner/Wikimedia Commons)
The photos were a sensation (my favorite is the one where the pigeon's wings are captured in the frame, above), and Neubronner became famous, especially after he did public demonstrations of his bird-cameras at the 1909 International Photographic Exhibition in Dresden and the 1909 International Aviation Exhibition in Frankfurt. Interested spectators could watch the birds arrive, and wait as picture postcards were made from the images they brought back of their city from that very day. Neubronner also invented a portable, horse-drawn dovecote on wheels that could be used as he moved from one place to another. It had an attached darkroom so photos could be developed on the spot.
The inventor went on to develop nine different versions of the camera, including a panoramic one. While he achieved notoriety for his creative invention, it was never the success he intended. Though the idea was tested prior to World War I in military contexts (and the state acquired his invention), it wasn't used much, especially as aviation photography gained ground. Pigeon post was used frequently during war time and even during battles, however, so Neubronner's mobile dovecote was found valuable in that context. And there are unverified reports that pigeon photography may have been used in WWII in specific circumstances.
There are plenty more photographs from Neubronner's pigeons to be found in a new book, simply titled "The Pigeon Photographer."