The World’s Oldest Aerial Photographs

A few months ago, I picked up a photograph on eBay showing a view of a town with a body of water in the background, evidently taken from a great height.  The seller described it as an “early aerial photo ca. 1860 from balloon” but wasn’t sure quite when it had been taken or where, although it had reportedly turned up among the effects of a family from Hingham, Massachusetts.

The print itself is an oval vignette mounted on a card-stock backing considerably larger than shown in the above scan, with only a tiny and frustratingly uninformative imprint on the reverse: “PHOTOGRAPHED BY.”  It’s an intriguing image, and my quest to learn more about it has drawn me into the adventuresome early history of aerial photography—a history which I’d now like to share with you in turn, and in which the above photograph turns out to be fairly significant.

The first-ever successful photograph from a balloon is believed to have been taken above the French village of Petit-Bicêtre by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known professionally as Nadar, in October 1858, the same month he took out a patent on a “système de photographie aérostatique.”  The plates in his previous experiments at balloon photography had all come out mysteriously blackened, the problem—which he’d finally averted—having been that hydrogen sulfide escaping from the balloon had been reacting with his silver iodide.  Unfortunately, Nadar’s 1858 balloon photograph isn’t known to survive today.  It’s true that a photographic print held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France has a caption that translates as “First Result of Aerostatic Photography…. Negative obtained at the altitude of 520 meters by Nadar 1858,” but this is actually a mislabeled image captured by Nadar above Paris ten years later, during the Exposition of 1868.

The oldest known surviving aerial photographs instead date from an ascension at Providence, Rhode Island, on August 16, 1860, by the pioneer aeronaut Samuel Archer King and the Boston-based photographer James Wallace Black.  Here’s one account of their first experiment, taken from the Chicago Press and Tribune of August 22:

PHOTOGRAPHS FROM A BALLOON.—Our readers, says the Providence Journal of the 17th inst., will remember with pleasure the account which Dr. Helme, of this city, gave in the Journal of a balloon ascension which he made at Boston on the 4th of July.  He suggested in his narrative the possibility of taking photographic views from the balloon.  The idea has been active in his mind ever since.  Accordingly, he and Mr. Black, of Boston, a renowned photographer, made the proper arrangements with Messrs. King and Allen, of this city, for ascending in order to try the experiment.  They were delayed by the unpleasant weather, and then by an unfortunate accident to the valve of the gas pipe, which prevented them from filling their balloon at an early hour yesterday.  In the afternoon, however, the inflation was completed, and Mr. Black ascended to the height of twelve hundred feet, his balloon being held by a rope, where several attempts were made.  The higher ascension, which would have furnished a more extended view, was necessarily postponed, because the clouds arose and obscured the sky.  The entire results cannot be known until the negative plates are fully developed; but we learn that Mr. Black regards it as demonstrated that bird’s eye views may be taken in this way.  The experiment is one of great interest, and we congratulate the gentlemen who have attempted it upon their success.  We think that it has never been tried before, and we are sure that it has never been attempted with any success.  We hope to-morrow to have from Dr. Helme a full report of the experiments.

Black had in fact secured two photographs during the ascension, but both of them had flaws, as noted in the New England Farmer, August 25, 1860, p. 3:

The photograph taken from a balloon at Providence, by Mr. Black, of Boston, failed to make good pictures.  In one of them all the buildings are sharply defined and well marked, though wanting in light; but the crackling of the collodion film, when drying, spoiled the plate, and the print from it looks as though an earthquake happened at the time.  The other picture was blurred by motion, from an attempt to give it a longer time.

The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) holds a print made from the “crackled” negative:

No question about it: this is a thoroughly spoiled image, and Black presumably made the print only for reference.  The second negative had a far less catastrophic defect, the motion of the balloon during the longer exposure time having only caused it to come out a little blurry.  MoMA has a print made from the second negative too, but with an important difference: it’s been cropped to an oval vignette.  This implies that Black considered the image at least a partial success, since the purpose of the vignette could only have been to make the print more aesthetically suitable for exhibition or sale.  I wasn’t able to find this second photograph anywhere online, but it’s reproduced in William F. Robinson, A Certain Slant of Light: The First Hundred Years of New England Photography (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1980), p. 56, which was my source for the scan below.

That’s where things stood until King and Black made another ascension together on October 13, 1860, this time above Boston.  The following account of their second expedition is taken from the Scientific American of October 27, 1860, p. 277:


The experiment of photographing the city and its environs, undertaken on Saturday by Mr. Black, of the firm of Black & Batchelder, assisted by Mr. King, the aeronaut, was attended with the most satisfactory results.  The idea that it was possible to get photographic pictures of the earth first occur[r]ed to Dr. W. H. Helme, of Providence, who, having interested Mr. Black on the subject, the two made an ascension from Providence a few weeks since, to make a trial in the “high art.”  Then, as on Saturday, the balloon Queen of the Air furnished by Messrs. King & Allen, was confined by a cable at an elevation of 1,200 feet.  Several views were taken, but these preliminary experiments proved sunlight indispensable to complete success.  Of the two trial pictures obtained over Providence, the buildings in one were sharply defined while the other was blurred by motion.  The plate of the first “negative” having been spoiled in the process of finishing, the photographs are of but little value save as curiosities of the art.

The last experiment, however, made on Saturday, furnishes the most conclusive evidence that photography can be applied under favorable circumstances to the production of birds’-eye views of towns and cities, harbors, lakes and water-courses.  Six plates were used, only two of which, however, received satisfactory impressions.  The area brought within the field of the camera in two pictures, is bounded by Brattle-street on the north, and Park-street on the west, forming a view at once novel and picturesque, of the entire business portion of the city.  The impression which is received in looking at the pictures is similar to that experienced by the aeronauts themselves.  The wider streets of the city—in their tortuous windings—seem like mere alleys, dark and narrow, while the alleys themselves are scarcely distinguishable in the midst of the high walls.  The public buildings, churches, and long blocks of storehouses look like the toy village of a child, while the shipping at the wharves and sailing craft in the harbor look no bigger than the miniature vessels on the Frog Pond.  And yet the buildings are sharply defined, especially where the sun fell upon them in full force.

The City Hall and Court-house, Faneuil Hall, Quincy market, and the intermediate buildings seen in the center of one picture are finely marked, while on the periphery of the photograph, Park-street church, the Journal office, Old South church, Custom House, Scollay’s Building, and the wharves are thrown into a dark shade.  The white sails of a vessel lying in dock, and one of the East Boston ferry boats on her passage, loom up out of the darkness.  In the picture of the city above Water-street the Old South is more strongly defined, a sign, “clothing-house,” on a store in Milk-street, being clearly marked, while the splendid granite warehouses in Franklin, Pearl, and other streets are truthfully depicted.  Trinity church, the Music-hall, one of the Portland steamboats and a vessel under sail in the harbor, are seen in partial obscurity on the outer circle of the photograph.  Seen through a magnifying glass, the corners and projecting points of the picture are tinged with the colors of the rainbow, producing a very beautiful impression.  The photographs will probably be reduced to a size adapted to the stereoscope. –Boston Journal.

Three aerial photographs taken above Boston that day are still known to exist, and I’ve marked the approximate views presented by each on the map below.The green line shows the borders of a view now commonly known as “Boston as the Eagle and Wild Goose See It” (which was, incidentally, rephotographed by S. W. Dunwell in 2012; see here and here).  This has been characterized as the “first clear aerial view of a city,” which is probably accurate, but also as “the first aerial image taken in the United States, the first aerial image of a city anywhere, and…the oldest aerial image known to survive,” which it most definitely isn’t.  It exists in two different forms, a rectangular vignette and an oval vignette, both illustrated below.  Neither presents the whole original plate.

The blue line on my map shows the borders of another photograph described in the Scientific American article quoted above, based on the landmarks described as visible at its center and periphery.  The Huntington Library apparently holds a print of it, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t been published anywhere.  These were presumably the two plates which contemporary accounts reported as having been successfully exposed above Boston.  Both appear to have been taken from the same height, estimated at the time as 1200 feet, and from the same vantage point over Boston Common.  Robinson (p. 57) also mentions a third image taken during the same ascension—a view of Charlestown—that isn’t known to have survived.

Finally, the red line on my map marks the borders of another aerial view of Boston held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shown below.

This photograph was plainly taken from a much greater height and from a different position well south of Boston Common.  As it happens, this third image had broken important new ground.  Not only is it the oldest surviving image of its type, but it probably marks the first time anyone had even tried to take a photograph under similar conditions.

Let me digress a moment to consider the history of air travel in general.  It was in October 1783 that human beings first ascended in hot air balloons that were tethered—that is, anchored to the ground by ropes.  But it’s the first manned untethered balloon voyage of November 21, 1783, that has come to be celebrated as the “first human flight”: a case of people not merely rising aloft and then returning to the same spot again, but actually traveling by air between two points (separated on that occasion by a distance of between five and six miles). Since historians of ballooning in general ascribe such importance to the difference between tethered ascensions and free flight, it’s probably worth our while to factor it into the history of balloon-based aerial photography as well.  There’s a distinction, after all, between taking a photograph from a balloon held securely above a city by a guide line and taking one from a balloon floating freely across the landscape wherever the wind might chance to lead it.

The first balloon-based photography, like the first manned balloon ascension, involved the use of tethered balloons, as we’ve seen.  This applies to the early experiments of Nadar, the ascension above Providence, and the first ascension at Boston.  As for the first attempt to take photographs from a balloon in free flight, let’s turn to a first-hand account of the events of October 13, 1860, by Samuel King himself, quoted from the Boston Herald of October 16:

Messrs. Editors: For some weeks past preparations have been making for a repetition of our experiment of photographing from a balloon. We had previously made a rather unsuccessful attempt at Providence, in consequence of the sky becoming overcast with clouds before the balloon was ready to ascend, throwing such a shade on the earth that to take instantaneous impressions with any distinctness was impossible. Nevertheless, we accomplished sufficient at that time to convince us that under favorable circumstances we could overcome all difficulties, and finally bring the experiment to a successful result. We determined to persevere, and on Saturday last,—the prospects of a fine day being very flattering—Mr. Black, the eminent photographic artist, of the firm of Black & Batchelder, and I, as on the former occasion, ascended together. First of all we arose 1,200 feet by means of a stout rope attached to a windlass, and, while remaining stationary at this height, succeeded in getting some fine views of different parts of Boston.

But we wished to get more extended views than could be obtained at such a height, and so, after being drawn down and detaching the rope, we ascended in the usual manner. Soon an extensive field was opened to us, and we hoped to be able to secure some of the magnificent scenes which we now scanned. Everything was in readiness, and an attempt was made to take the city that was now sitting so beautifully for her picture. But just at this time we encountered a difficulty which had never before suggested itself. The gas, expanding as the balloon rose, flowed freely from the neck and filled the surrounding atmosphere, penetrating even into the camera, neutralizing the effect of the light and turning the coating on the glass plate to a uniform dark brown color. Several plates were spoiled in this manner before we discovered the cause, by which we lost much very precious time, as we were rapidly drifting away in a southerly direction. Soon after, the balloon reached an altitude above the clouds, which were already quite numerous and gathering fast. For some moments we lost sight of the city and its surroundings, and, when we again descended below the mist, our distance from Boston was too great to make it worth while trying to get any more views of that locality.

Black had run into the same problem that had frustrated Nadar’s early attempts at balloon photography: gas from the balloon had contaminated and darkened his plates.  The third surviving image captured above Boston thus appears to have been the first photograph ever taken from a balloon in free flight—indeed, it’s presumably the first photograph anyone ever even tried to take from a balloon in free flight—but Black and King evidently also regarded it as a failure.  It wasn’t among the results reported on at the time in the popular press, as far as I’ve seen, and the print we have today might have been made only for reference (note the lack of oval vignette).  Others have written disparagingly of it as well: we read that it’s a “photo of poor quality” and “pretty damaged,” and Robinson (p. 59) writes: “The escaping gas from the balloon reacted with the negative to darken it as it was being exposed in the camera, hence the lack of contrast.”

But there’s more to the story, so let’s pick up the thread of King’s narrative at the point where he and Black have descended below the clouds and found themselves too far from Boston to get any more pictures of the city.

We were nearing the coast in an oblique direction, and as our voyage must of necessity be of short duration, it was necessary that our movements should be very rapid. Mr. Black proved himself to be peculiarly fitted for the object we had undertaken. Entirely absorbed in his manipulations, he worked with a celerity that was truly astonishing, never allowing the novelty of the scene to divert his attention for a moment when there was an opportunity of securing a picture.

In this way we moved along, sometimes taking views immediately beneath us, and at others bringing into focus objects that were miles away. None of these views were equal to those taken while hovering over the city, for the clouds had now gathered thick in every direction, and an intervening mistiness in the atmosphere prevented the impressions from being clearly defined.

Our last attempt at photographing was just after passing over the village of East Weymouth. Finding it impossible to carry our experiments any farther, the apparatus was secured, the tent dropped, and the balance of the voyage was devoted to pleasure.

We descended at quarter past three o’clock, having been up two hours and fifteen minutes, traveling about thirty miles. So ended our experiment. The views we succeeded in taking can be seen at Black & Batchelders’ rooms, 173 Washington street.

Two images from this leg of the journey are known to survive today, and the photograph with which I began this post is one of them.  In the map below, I’ve traced the approximate path of the Queen of the Air southeastward from Boston in green.  My photograph corresponds to the position and view shown in red, while a second photograph, which I’ll describe in a moment, corresponds to the position and view shown in blue.A view straight northwest from the red dot over East Weymouth gave the aeronauts a view of the shoreline with Weymouth Fore River nearest at hand, Gull Point opposite it on the left, and Rock Island Cove spreading out behind that, with Hough’s Neck yet further beyond.  The town visible in the frame is North Weymouth, the street layout of which—as shown in an 1876 atlas of Norfolk County—is a perfect match for the details of the photograph.  Among other things, Pilgrim Congregational Church can be seen clearly in the center of town.  The camera, incidentally, was facing almost straight back in the direction from which Black and King had just come, making the result a view of their route of travel.  Not only is this a photograph from a balloon in free flight, then; it’s also a photograph of the course of that flight.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds another print made from the same negative as mine, identified by them as an “Aerial View, North Weymouth, Massachusetts” by James Wallace Black, taken in 1860.  They acquired it in 1981 as part of the Robert O. Dougan collection and singled it out for display in 1984-85 and 2006-7.  Their print, which can be seen in a YouTube video of “Rare Photographs of Early Manned Balloon Flights,” at the 2:39 mark, differs from mine in that it shows the whole plate rather than having been cropped to an oval vignette.  It’s also reproduced in A Certain Slant of Light, on page 60, albeit more narrowly cropped.

As of this writing, the Met has pulled its North Weymouth image scan offline, but I was impressed to find that Google Image Search was still able to identify a scan of my own print correctly with reference to the Met’s scan, which must therefore survive out there somehow as searchable data.The lighter vertical band at far left in my print is a flaw of the print, but the haze at center also appears on the Met’s print, so it must have been on the negative itself.  Is this the “intervening mistiness in the atmosphere” mentioned by Black, or was there a problem with the emulsion?  And what are all the bright, vaguely C-shaped curves?  Maybe the paths of birds in flight?

The Princeton University Art Museum holds a print of the other photograph, taken just a short while later, a scan of which can be seen below.  It’s misidentified online as an “aerial view near Providence, Rhode Island,” apparently reflecting a handwritten caption partly visible at the bottom of the scan, but an examination of the layout of the roads and shoreline leaves no doubt about what it really is: a view of Hingham, Massachusetts.  To the best of my knowledge, this image has never before been published with its subject correctly identified.

King’s narrative implies that Black took quite a few photographs during the free flight of the Queen of the Air on August 1860, but as far as I can tell, only three of them exist today: (1) the view above Boston, (2) the view of North Weymouth, and (3) the view of Hingham.  Of these, the Boston view was obviously the first to be taken, but it also seems to have been regarded as spoiled.  By contrast, the view of North Weymouth was prepared not only as a rectangular reference print (the one at the Met), but also as an oval vignette suited to exhibition or sale (the one I bought on eBay).  The fact that such a print turned up among the papers of a family in the Hingham area, about three miles east of North Weymouth, further implies that someone local actually obtained a copy, most likely by buying it.  All these considerations could arguably make it the oldest known successful photograph taken from a balloon in free flight—not as sharp as “Boston as the Eagle and Wild Goose See It,” admittedly, but still presentable.  It’s certainly earned a place of honor on my wall.


2 thoughts on “The World’s Oldest Aerial Photographs

  1. Wonderful! Your original vignette reminded me of sights I’ve seen when flying (in a plane) at much higher altitudes over eastern Canada en route from London to Boston. So discovering it’s a view of the Boston area explains that.

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