The Inventive Aerial Photography of the Lawrence Captive Airship

By Wesley Fenlon

Before airplanes were soaring the skies, George R. Lawrence was using kites to take incredible aerial photographs.

More than a century ago, engineer and photographer George R. Lawrence captured an image of San Francisco in ruins, just weeks after a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the city. The year was 1906, yet Lawrence's photograph seems like it was shot out of a helicopter. It's taken from an impossible height, far above the tallest buildings that remain standing. Of course, there were no helicopters--the Wright brothers had only made their first successful flight a couple years before. And Lawrence didn't use a hot air balloon to ascend above the city, either. He used kites.

Lawrence's Captive Airship, as he called it, was an ingenious kite array that lifted a 50 pound panoramic camera between 400 and 2000 feet into the air. It took 17 kites to hold the camera and a stabilizing rig aloft. Three boom arms stretched out horizontally from beneath the camera with cords attached that connected to a weight dangling below the camera to keep the rig balanced.

According to stories about Lawrence's early experimentations with photography, he first used balloons to take aerial photographs. Once, while floating over Chicago, his basket broke, separating from the balloon holding it aloft. The basket fell 200 feet, but Lawrence's fall was broken by telephone and telegraph cables. he invented the Captive Airship after that close call and used it to take some incredible photographs.

It's hard to imagine how stunning the panoramic photos must have been in 1906, when aerial photography was obviously an enormous undertaking. Sales of the San Francisco in ruins photo alone racked up $15,000--more than $375,000 adjusted for inflation. Lawrence took some other great photos with the Captive Airship, too--check out a collection of them here.

Photo credit: Library of Congress

A magazine story about Lawrence from 1997 offers more interesting details about where in San Francisco he took his photographs, and it also mentions an interesting element of all of the aerial photographs: even though they're more than 100 years old, they were retouched, at the time, to produce a nicer image. The booms supporting the 130 degree camera would always show up in the corners of the photo, but some of Lawrence's photographs have them edited out. He may not have had Photoshop, but he knew the value of an unblemished photograph.