Looking at Earth

A Bird’s Eye View

First Look

Before the development of practical aircraft photography, aerial views of the Earth were obtained in many different ways. Our first looks at the Earth from above came from kites, rockets, balloons, and even pigeons.

City Portraits

Early interest in the aerial view took the form of idealized sketches depicting how cities would look if viewed from above. In the 19th century, towns all across the U.S. commissioned these "bird's-eye view" drawings.


In 1895, Lt. Hugh D. Wise of the 9th Infantry Division experimented with photo kites at Madison Barracks, New York. He built an 5.4-meter (18-foot) high kite and attached a box camera to the string. Triggered by a timing device, the camera took photos from an altitude of 180 meters (600 feet).
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Wise's Kite Camera
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

A photo kite was used to produce this aerial view of the parade ground at Madison Barracks.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Photo kite testing at Governor's Island, New York, 1895.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The photographer, G.R. Lawrence, flew an array of 17 kites to hoist his camera aloft.


This photo rocket was conceived by the Frenchman Amedee Denisse in 1888. The design is thought to be the first of its kind. On the left is a 12-lens camera which fits beneath the rocket's nose cone. After the film was exposed, the camera and rocket would be parachuted back to Earth. It is not known if the rocket was ever built.

Alfred Nobel, famous for establishing the Nobel prize, also designed a photo rocket in 1897.
Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

View of a village in Sweden thought to be taken by Alfred Nobel's photo rocket in 1897, although Nobel was also experimenting with balloon-borne cameras at the time.
Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation

German landscape photographed in 1904 by the camera system of Alfred Maul, a pioneer in photo rocketry.


In 1903, Dr. Julius Neubronner patented a miniature pigeon camera activated by a timing mechanism. Equipped with the cameras, the pigeons photographed a castle in Kronberg, Germany, around 1908.
Pigeon Photographs ®Deutsches Museum, Munich


Thaddeus Lowe

Thaddeus Lowe, a pioneer in balloon reconnaissance, flew high above the battlefields to observe troop movements during the Civil War. In this photo, he is shown reporting the approach of a Confederate regiment in an area where Union officers had expected only friendly forces.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Boston in 1860 photographed by William Black from Samuel Archer King's balloon, the Queen of the Air. A previous attempt by Black to photograph Providence, RI, from a balloon produced unsatisfactory results, and the Boston photos represent the first successful aerial photographic effort in the U.S.
Courtesy of Boston Public Library

Thaddeus Lowe

Early photo of Thaddeus Lowe.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Binoculars, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe

Lowe used these field glasses during the Civil War for aerial observations of Confederate troops.
Gift of the heirs of Thaddeus Lowe

Abraham Lincoln's Note to Gen. Scott

Note dated July 25, 1861, from President Lincoln urging Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott to meet with Thaddeus Lowe to discuss his balloons. Lincoln was impressed by the potential of balloons for reconnaissance, but the skeptical General Scott, a senior military commander, needed some convincing. Lincoln urged him to provide Lowe with any necessary assistance.
Gift of the heirs of Thaddeus Lowe

Original correspondence between Thaddeus Lowe and Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry gave Lowe much support in his quest to use his balloons for Civil War reconnaissance. In 1861 with Henry's aid, Lowe demonstrated the value of his balloon on the site where the National Air and Space Museum now stands. From his vantage point, 152 meters (500 feet) above the ground, he telegraphed a message to President Lincoln thanking him for his encouragement.
Read excerpts from this letter.

Letter from Major General George Stoneman praising Lowe's achievements.
Read excerpts from this letter.

This balloon view of the U.S. Capitol in 1907 is among the earliest aerial photos of Washington, DC.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Up, Up, and Away

From their early beginnings, balloons soon soared to great heights. They became useful tools in the fields of art, science, and reconnaissance.

Moby Dick Reconnaissance Balloon

In 1956, more than 500 plastic reconnaissance balloons were launched for a program called Moby Dick. Ostensibly to gather meteorological information, the balloons were actually equipped with cameras to photograph Soviet territory. The balloons merely floated with the winds and were retrieved after passing beyond Soviet borders. Only 44 were successfully recovered.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Skyhook Camera

Skyhook Aerial Camera

Skyhook panoramic cameras were flown on balloon reconnaissance missions very similar to those of the Moby Dick program.

Explorer II High Altitude Balloon

The Explorer II balloon was designed to study conditions in the highest reaches of the atmosphere. It was flown in 1935 and carried Capt. Albert W. Stevens and Capt. Orvil A. Anderson higher than anyone had ever flown before. Sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army Air Corps, Explorer II rose to 22066 meters (72,395 feet), a world altitude record which held for 20 years.
Courtesy of the Lee Wells Collection

Unique Views

Balloon and blimp photography have a lighter side as well. The Goodyear Blimp provided these unique views of familiar places and events.
Photographs courtesy Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company

The Olympic stadium in Los Angeles, CA.
Photograph by Jim Dexter

Skyscrapers in Detroit, MI.
Photograph by Jim Dexter

Night game at Dodger Stadium.