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See aerial photos of Chicago in the 1900s taken by a camera and kites

Written by
Sara Freund

Before GoPros, drones, iPhone cameras, digital cameras and even disposable cameras, there was George R. Lawrence, a kite and his 49-pound film camera.

According to research and sources like NPR, the Chicago-based photographer started experimenting with aerial shots in 1901 by stringing together balloons, but those weren't entirely reliable. After Lawrence fell nearly 200 feet and narrowly escaped death, he decided to find an alternative method. Having seen advertising banners flown by kites, he was inspired to build his own set to fly his camera. Historical articles indicate that as many as nine to 17 kites were needed to keep his heavy camera steady nearly 2,000 feet in the air.

With the new method Lawrence wasn’t in the air with his camera, so he devised a plan to snap the photo. He configured bamboo stabilizing arms and a steel piano wire with electrical current to trip the shutter. Then, a parachute was released to gently bring his equipment back down.

Lawrence’s claim to fame is an aerial photograph he took after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 (the photo earned him a whopping $15,000). He soon started to photograph more city surveys, sports and events. In Chicago he shot aerial photos of the Loop, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, baseball games, horse races and parades.

In 1909, after returning from a trip to photograph wildlife in East Africa, he pivoted to aviation design. He went on to receive nearly 100 patents for his devices at his aircraft factory in Chicago. His photography career may have been short-lived, but he did leave us with some pretty creative, unmanned aerial photography.

Bird's-eye view of Northwestern University, 1907
Photograph: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
View of Chicago from Majestic Building, 1907
Photograph: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
View of University of Chicago, 1907
Photograph: Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The Great American Derby, Chicago, June 18, 1904
Photograph: Courtesy of Library of Congress
American League Park, Chicago vs. Boston, Aug. 14, 1904, attendance 30,198
Photograph: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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