Aerial Mapping with Balloons, Kites, and Pigeons

Caitlin Dempsey


What’s old is new again.  Remotely acquired imagery has come a long way from its early days of balloon and kite platforms.  Raster data, such as aerial imagery has become an integral GIS dataset.  While most GIS professionals and cartographers obtain commercial or government-based imagery, there is a rising popularity of do-it-yourself aerial mapping and imagery.

Aerial images, especially vertical photographs (taken straight down) have long held importance for surveying, military planning, and for enabling GIS data creation.  While aerial photography today is most commonly captured via an airplane fitted with cameras, aerial imagery in the past required more inventiveness with photographers using balloons, kites, and pigeons.

Early Days of Aerial Photography

The first recorded aerial imagery was captured by Gaspard Felix Tournachon in 1858, a french photographer operating under the pseudonym Félix Nadar.  Who used an air ballon as his platform for capturing aerial imagery.

Those early photographs taken over Paris unfortunately no longer exist.

A caricature published in May of 1862 by French publication, Le Boulevard, reenacted the photographer in action.

Nadar Élevant la Photographie à la Hauteur de l’Art, Le Boulevard, 25 May 1862.

The earliest surviving aerial image was taken over Boston on October 13, 1860 by James Wallace Black, a photographer, and Samuel Archer King, a balloon navigator. The aerial photograph was entitled ’Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It’ and was taken at an altitude of 1,200 feet.

‘Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It’, October 13, 1860.

The earliest days of aerial photography were challenging, given the amount of equipment needed for taking a photography.  Advances in photography over the years have made cameras smaller and lighter.  Other platforms than air balloons emerged as viable options for taking aerial imagery.

The claim of who captured the first aerial imagery is under some debate.  In 1885, British meteorologist Douglas Archibald filed a permit for a kite balloon and first discussed the use of aerial imagery captured by kite for miltary purposes in his French language leaflet, Les Cerfs-Volants militaires published in 1888 in which he claimed to have taken his first aerial image by kite earlier in July of that year.  French photographer, Arthur Batut captured aerial imagery of Labruguière,France in 1888. In his 1897 book entitled “The Story of the Earth’s Atmosphere“, Archibald described his experience and proclaimed himself as the first kite photographer, stating (pg. 174):

Kites were also employed, first by the author in 1887, to photograph objects below by means of a camera attached to the kite wire, the shutter being released by explosion.  Since that time kite photography has leapt into popularity, and has been successfully practiced by M. Batut in France, Capt. Baden Powell in England, and Eddy in New Jersey.

In that same volume, Archibald continued his discussion of the use of aerial photography via kites as a military surveillance and planning tool, declaring:

…kites are able to do as much as free balloons up to about three miles.  They are also cheaper and more portable than captive balloons, and possess far greater elevating power, especially in windy weather, when such balloons are nearly useless.

Aerial image taken by kite at an altitude of 400 feet of Middleton Hall in Tamworth, UK by Captain Baden Powell, circa 1896.

Bert Maetens on his blog, dissects the claims of Archibald and Batut in an effort to answer the question of who first captured the first aerial image via kite. In 1890, Batut published the first book on kite photography, entitled, “La photographie aérienne par cerf-volant.” 

In 1907, a German by the name of Julius Neubronner, outfitted a pigeon to take the first avian aerial photography.

1908 aerial imagery of Schlosshotel Kronberg captured by homing pigeons (note the wing tips at the edges of the upper photography). By Julius Neubronner.

Homing pigeons outfitted with cameras for capturing aerial imagery. Julius Neubronner, 1909.

To learn how individuals are capturing aerial imagery using do-it-yourself methods, read the article, Grassroots Aerial Mapping.

See Also

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!