It made me wonder about how old aerial photography is, and whether the earliest photographs still exist. I was surprised to find the oldest existing aerial photo was also of Boston!
Although DaVinci wrote about the physics behind photography, the chemicals were not properly developed til a few hundred years later. The first real photograph was taken around 1826. The first aerial photograph was taken in 1858 by Felix Tournachon, known as Nadar, from a tethered balloon over the Bievre Valley in France. Those photographs no longer exist. The oldest surviving aerial photograph is this one of Boston, taken by James Wallace Black in 1860, using a tethered balloon.
More historical aerial photos, after the jump.
Arthur Batut was the first to successfully attach a timer to a camera (consisting of a lit fuse), and attach the camera to a kite. Here is a picture he took from the air over Labruguiere, France in 1889.
In 1903, Julius Neubronner attached small cameras to homing pigeons, with timers set to take a picture every 30 seconds. The resulting Bavarian Pigeon Corps were reliable soldiers, but were occasionally shot and eaten by hungry troops during wartime. See more photos here. Note the wingtips visible in the upper photo.
George Lawrence took this photograph of San Francisco six weeks after the devastating earthquake in 1906. The enormous 49-pound camera was sent to an altitude of 2,000 feet on a train of nine kites, and tripped by electric wire. The camera took many shots to form panoramic images on negatives that were 48 inches wide! See more photos here.
Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) is still popular, and you don't have to have a pilot's liscence to do it. Charles Benton of Berkeley has been involved with KAP since 1994, and runs a website with lots of information and photographs. There's also a KAP blog and regional websites.
The first photograph from an airplane was taken in 1908 by L. P. Bonvillain, in a plane piloted by Wilbur Wright in France. A year later, Wilbur Wright also piloted the plane for the first aerial movie, over Italy. Afterwards, aviation photography was put to use for science, mapping, and military reconnaissance. This photo shows before-and-after aerial images of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium.
Captain Albert Stevens took the first photo that showed the curvature of the earth in 1935. The balloon, the Explorer II, set an altitude record of 72,395 feet! Unfortunately, that image does not seem to exist on the internet. The first image from space was taken in 1946, from a V-2 rocket (launched from White Sands, New Mexico) at an altitude of 65 miles.
The CIA's Corona Project (1959-1972) laid the groundwork for satellite imagery by taking reconnaissance photographs of China and the Soviet Union, among other areas. This Corona photo shows the Pentagon.
The Mercury and Apollo space missions took aerial photography to a new level. This image of "Earthrise" over the moon was taken from Apollo Ten in May, 1969.
The many other photographs of earth taken from space, and the current photography of other planets, is an extensive subject to leave for another day. For more details, see the History of Aerial Photographic Interpretation. For a short course in early photography in general, see this post at Neatorama.