Julius Gustav Neubronner with carrier pigeon and camera
While the reality of drone surveillance (not to mention warfare) often feels like the very cutting edge of a new dystopia, it’s fascinating to remember all the clever (if disturbing) little spy ideas that came before. Julius Gustav Neubronner was a German pharmacist born in 1852, but he’s most famous for his innovations in camera technology—Neubronner was the world’s first pigeon photographer.
He began taking pictures in 1865, around the tender age of 13, when he bought a camera on credit after attempts to take pictures with his father’s old broken one failed. As an adult, he used carrier pigeons to deliver medical supplies to clients, but when one disappeared for nearly a month before returning, he decided to track it’s movements with a small, timed camera. He built, tested, and scrapped a few different camera/pigeon harness rigs before settling on the perfect design, and by 1908, he received a patent. You can see some rigged pigeons below, along with three panoramic pictures from Neubronner’s birds—one even has wings in the shot. The groundbreaking aerial photography won awards and was printed up on postcards, but never managed to make him any money.
Around the first World War, Neubronner’s work was further developed for military use. A Swiss clock-maker tweaked his design for the Swiss Army’s carrier pigeon program, and later, the CIA created a battery-powered pigeon camera for spying. It’s never been confirmed that pigeon photography has been used by the US for espionage, but we do know “war pigeons” were used for communication by the French during World War One, and by the UK and US during World War Two. In fact, in Britain, 34 pigeons have been awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal for their service in war! Not bad for “rats with wings.”