Check Out These Panoramic Photos Of Brooklyn And San Francisco From A 1905 Proto-Drone

Today, U.S. drones patrol the skies around the world, but 100 years ago a remotely controlled flying device was taking gorgeous pictures from the air.


Nearly a century before U.S. drones took to Afghani airspace with the goal of targeted killings, a remotely controlled panoramic camera sailed over American cities, photographing landscapes from a stack of kites. It was called the “captive airship,” a proto-drone (of sorts) developed by Chicago photographer George R. Lawrence.

Berkeley, California, at 1,000 feet. Photo credit: George R. Lawrence/Library of Congress

After nearly killing himself trying to take photographs from hydrogen balloons in 1901, Lawrence began to develop an idea based on another serial kite contraption invented by Silas J. Conyne, according to East Carolina University’s Dr. Simon Baker, whose treasure trove of Lawrence research is available here. While Conyne’s invention advertised banners in the air, Lawrence rejiggered it so a stack of 17 kites supported his camera. The airship took breathtaking photos from altitudes as high as 2,000 feet.

San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Photo credit: George R. Lawrence/Library of Congress

Lawrence captured shots of San Francisco wrecked by the 1906 earthquake, a very suburban-looking Prospect Park, a bustling Kansas City, industrial Akron, and the grain belt.

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York. Photo credit: George R. Lawrence/Library of Congress

The U.S. military (surprise) also took an interest in Lawrence’s work. After the Navy invited Lawrence to try out his gear on the USS Maine in 1905, three officers wrote up a report on the captive airship technology:

The Board is of the opinion that,

The idea of taking photographs from high altitudes is under certain circumstances, especially during war, of inestimable value: such as locating ships in enclosed or blocked harbors, the interior of fortresses, the location of shore batteries etc.

They had no idea.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data