Want to travel back in time? In our weekly “Retro Science” series, we’re digging up visual artifacts that capture fascinating moments from science history, including surprising studies, outdated inventions, and breakthrough achievements. By recapturing science’s impressive feats and most amusing flops, RetroScience will remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.
Before there were drones and airplanes, the market on aerial photography was cornered by the sleuths in the photo above. In 1907, German apothecary and Julius Neubronner invented pigeon photography. As an apothecary, Neubronner initially used carrier pigeons to deliver medications, but soon concocted the idea of utilizing the birds for aerial photography. To do so, Neubronner strapped a lightweight, time-delayed camera to a homing pigeon with an aluminum breast harness. The pigeon was released, and the timer would go off in set intervals to take photos while the bird was in flight.
Soon, the birds were sent on espionage missions. Neubronner’s invention was briefly used for military air surveillance during World War I. The perfect spy, the pigeon concealed its role as a secret agent by hiding amongst its own kind. Pigeons could easily cross enemy lines and take photos in close range, providing detailed images of the target (see photos below).
As aviation technology advanced, military interest in pigeon photography quickly faded, but not before the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed a battery-powered camera designed for espionage pigeon photography. The details of their use remains classified. Which is to say that the next time you see a pigeon on your neighbor’s window, you should consider closing the blinds. He could be on the watch.
Read more on these oddball spies at The New Inquiry.