The Kite-Borne Camera That Captured Post-Quake San Francisco In 1906

The Kite-Borne Camera That Captured Post-Quake San Francisco In 1906

Drone photography is in the news this week, with protesters in Istanbul using unmanned cameras to document the events from above. Interestingly, the very first instance of remote aerial photography was devised to document an urban crisis too: the 1906 earthquake that levelled San Francisco.

George R. Lawrence was an eccentric, brilliant aviator and photographer, whose many claims to fame included building the largest camera ever made for his time. He was also interested in aerial photography — although, after he fell 60m from a balloon, he decided to go another route: kites. Using a 23kg camera strung from a boom-stabilised kite, Lawrence produced some of the first aerial photos of the era, including suburbs, coastlines and cities. He called his device “the Captive Airship”.

Lawrence’s setup.

Lawrence’s most famous image — and the one that made him buckets of money — was shot 300m above San Francisco in 1906. Six weeks after the 7.9-magnitude quake (and resulting fires) that killed 3000 San Franciscans, Lawrence sent his silk-string kite skyward from a ship off the coast of the city. Then he triggered the camera by shooting a battery current up to the device, capturing an iconic image of the still-smouldering city. The resulting photo became iconic — in fact, in 2006, an artist went to great lengths to shoot a modern-day equivalent.

Because bird’s-eye-view images were so rare at that time, Lawrence’s photos became a sensation — and they made him incredibly rich. He sold prints of his San Francisco shot for $125 a piece (more than $3000 today), and he eventually made almost half a million dollars, in today’s money, from the image. Check out some of Lawrence’s other shots below — from a turn-of-the-century football game to an aerial view of Park Slope.

A shot taken from the ground in San Francisco in 1906.

A close-up of San Francisco in 1906.

A shot of early Park Slope, Brooklyn.

A Michigan vs Chicago football game in Ann Arbor.

The “International Ballooning Contest”, in Chicago.

The inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt.

[Chicago Magazine, via PetaPixel]