Espionage has always been one of the foremost requirements to conduct a respectable war. Generals have always relied heavily on intelligence and counterintelligence to gain the tactile edge in battle. Stealth drones of today are capable of sneaking into enemy territory and snapping photos that offer vital information to turn the tides in their favor. However, more than 100 years ago, it was the Germans who had developed a crude, but effective, technique of gathering photographic information.
Drones are at the forefront of warfare in the 21st century. These unarmed and unmanned aircraft stealthily circle far above the battlefield, collecting images and reporting back to headquarters, electronically. But as early as 19th Century, early on in the new Great War, one German inventor thought of taking photographs from the sky.
Back in 1907, Julius Neubronner had invented a small, automatic camera that could be strapped to a homing pigeon. The camera would take photographs at pre-set times. Apparently, the idea was so good that the then Prussian Minister of War had shown interest in the project, and put birds from the military pigeon station in Spandau at Dr. Neubronner’s disposal, reported Scientific American.
The Germans had already experimented with balloons, kites, and rockets. However, each of the inanimate object had a crippling limitation. While kites had to be maneuvered by a soldier, the rockets would travel a lot faster to snap clear pictures, and balloons could wander off. Dr. Neubronner discovered that military photographic “bird’s eye views” could also be taken with the aid of carrier pigeons.
Pigeons were already widely used by armies for carrying messages. These intelligent birds had a strong sense of direction, and could fly way above enemy territory. However, the army still faced a major technological hurdle.
The German wartime engineers were stumped about how to construct an automatic camera with a maximum focal length of 2 inches and a maximum weight of 2 1/2 ounces, including all appurtenances. Moreover, they needed to make the entire apparatus light enough so that a pigeon would be able to bear its weight and fly in a pattern over enemy territory.
Interestingly, the problem was finally solved by a Frankfort firm. One form of the apparatus comprised of two complete cameras, with their lenses directed forward and backward, so that at least one land view could be obtained when both plates were exposed simultaneously in any position of the bird. The cameras are mounted on a thin aluminum cuirass, which was attached to the bird by straps and rubber bands.
Though the rapidly evolving aviation technology soon eclipsed the pigeon based espionage program, the CIA chose to develop a pigeon camera of its own, which can be admired in CIA’s Virtual Museum.
[Image Credit | The Public Doman Review]