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.
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.
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.
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.