The Real History of Drones, Part One: The Civil War and San Francisco in ruins

In this ongoing series we’ll tackle the long, weird and important history of drones, trying to answer a single guiding question: Just how did we get here?

The first transmission

On July 16, 1861, Abraham Lincoln walked out onto the White House lawn and looked up. The Civil War had been on for a few months, but aside from the initial Battle of Fort Sumter that April it hadn’t exactly been raging. Earlier that day, however, Lincoln’s Union Army marched out of Washington towards Manassas, VA, 25 miles away, where they would meet their first defeat at the Battle of Bull Run.

But for now Lincoln was looking up. Five hundred feet above him, Professor Thaddeus Lowe floated in a giant hot-air balloon.

Professor Lowe was a bit of an eccentric but also an expert ballooner, one of three that Lincoln had invited to DC to demonstrate the value of the aerial perspective to a military campaign. This was right on the heels off Lowe’s three failed attempts to hijack the jet stream and cross the Atlantic. His third and wildly wayward attempt just a few months earlier had actually landed him in, of all places, South Carolina, where he was unsurprisingly held for a time as a Union spy.

So you could say he had a lot to prove — both to himself and for himself. At the time, military leaders were highly skeptical of both the feasibility and the value of aerial reconnaissance: Balloons — big, heavy and slow to action — didn’t strike them as the most apt piece of battlefield equipment; was the view from above worth it? More importantly, balloons didn’t even seem to work, with Thaddeus’s own series of failures serving a particularly cutting example.

In fact, the aerial perspective wasn’t new to war. Balloons had already proven valuable to Napoleon, who used them in the 1790s for battlefield reconnaissance and mapmaking. And as far back as the third century the Chinese had flown rudimentary balloon lanterns to signal troops. But Lowe’s flight on the White House lawn was different in a significant way.

Lowe had a telegraph operator on board with him. Together they floated Thaddeus’s balloon — The Enterprise — to an altitude of about 500 feet over Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. A telegraph cable ran from the balloon’s gondola down to where the president stood on the lawn. Soon Lincoln held this message in his hands:

Balloon Enterprise

Washington, D. C. 16 June 1861

To President United States:

This point of observation commands an area nearly fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have the pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station.

It was the first-ever electronic data transmission from the air.

Brady_-_Balloon_ascension_of_Thaddeus_Lowe_at_Seven_Pines_HD-SN-99-01888

Three days later Lowe found himself in the employment of the Union Army. He flew reconnaissance missions over the Battle of Bull Run, which turned out to be a surprising mess for the Union, with some of the Confederate guerrilla tactics taking them off guard. Lowe delivered actionable strategic information from the air where ground recon failed, though the battle still was lost.

And at one point so was Lowe: He experienced a flyaway that trumps that of any drone owner, landing him once again behind enemy lines. He injured himself, and his wife Leontine — Thaddeus had named The Enterprise’s lifeboat after her — disguised herself as an old woman and came to his rescue.

I’m not sure that last part of the story is 100% true.

But overall the Army considered Lowe’s mission a success. Lincoln later named Lowe “Chief Aeronaut” of the newly-minted Union Army Balloon Corps, and for a couple of years he had a more or less successful run before the corps dissolved. During that time Lowe managed to launch a few balloons from a Union warship, making it the world’s first aircraft carrier.

The aerial information age was coming into its own.

Then and now

Obviously a lot has happened since Lowe sent that first transmission: We’ve removed the pilot; we’ve removed the cable; we’ve removed the balloon and the need to fly it yourself and have reduced the mass of an aerial vehicle by several orders of magnitude. We’ve also integrated cameras, hyperspectral sensors, sonar, smartphones and now, a la Solo, even computers. But the driving force behind the consumer drone revolution today is largely the same force that made Abraham Lincoln look up 150 years ago: People want to know what their world looks like from above.

Unfortunately, as is the case with those first balloons, a great deal of the history of drones involves the military, as the nightly news over the past decade or so has made so very clear.

However, the trickle-down effect from military to widespread civilian use applies to a lot of our most innovative and revolutionary technology — cargo shorts, for instance. And today, thanks more to the consumer electronics and smartphone revolutions than to military technology, the trajectory of drones points in a much different and much more constructive direction.

In this series I’ll tell, best I can, the whole story of drones, from theaters of war to the shelves of Walmart. We’ll look at exactly what a drone is and what they’re becoming, as well as consider the history of privacy rights, the DIY movement, even implications for augmented reality, artificial intelligence and the developing automation economy. We’ll also tell the stories of singular and fascinating characters who have contributed to this technology, such as Professor Lowe.

Wish me luck.

Lowe, by the way, recused himself from the Union Army Balloon Corps after the army cut his salary by 70%. He later developed a chemical gas-extraction process that made him a multi-millionaire. He invested in the railroad and later an extravagant chalet at the Grand Canyon, overextending himself as was the poor guy’s wont, and then promptly went bankrupt and died a pauper in his daughter’s house.

Sometimes the dreamer moves faster than the dream.

This unfortunate theme pops up again and again in the history of the American entrepreneur. It can get depressing. So by way of contrast, I’d like to offer up another great aviator story — this one unmanned.

San Francisco in Ruins

In April of 1906 an earthquake with a magnitude 7.8 struck San Francisco, killing about 3,000 people and destroying 80% of the city. People felt it from Oregon to south of LA and inland to Nevada. Because the quake ruptured the water mains, firefighters couldn’t control the blazes, and the city burned for several days.

Only a few weeks after the quake, George Lawrence, an expert in kite photography, traveled to San Francisco to photograph it from above. He saw destruction so immense and severe that if it weren’t for him, it would be difficult for us to grasp today.

Lawrence had with him an aerial kite photography system of his own design, consisting of sixteen kites, several counterweights and loads of cable. It probably took about a mile of cable for him to fly his 49-lb camera 2,000 feet above the city. Lawrence and his partner used binoculars to make sure the lens was positioned exactly where they wanted it, then they triggered the shutter from the ground with an electrical pulse sent from a hand-cranked generator.

San_Francisco_in_ruin_edit2

The result was the world’s first high-resolution aerial photo, which Lawrence titled “San Francisco in Ruins.” It’s an impressive photo even today — even to a guy who works for a drone company and sees incredible high-res aerial imagery all the time. (Though that fisheye is an easy fix in post.) The composition alone is remarkable, considering he had to spot the lens from the ground, and the kite’s position and stability was entirely at the mercy of the wind and the counterbalancing system Lawrence had rigged. You can see straight up Market Street, a main thoroughfare even back then. Everything looks flattened, but the city appears peaceful in its devastation, the sun settled calmly in a cloud over the Golden Gate. It even looks functional, with boats in the harbor. Lawrence sold enough prints to earn him $400,000 in today’s dollars.

A few things to note about Lawrence’s photograph. First, the New York Times claims that, thanks to the proliferation of cameras at the turn of the century, the San Francisco earthquake was at the time the most widely photographed disaster in history. Still, Lawrence’s aerial perspective stands out. This is not unlike the difference between smartphone cameras and aerial imagery today.

More importantly, the flight was unmanned. In fact, like Lowe, Lawrence used to ascend in hot-air balloons to get his aerials, but he shifted to kites after a fall from an altitude of 200 feet nearly killed him. He decided unmanned flight was the safer route, a choice we’re making today.

This photograph also shows the promise that the aerial perspective holds for disaster assessment and relief operations. We no longer have to wait weeks to have a comprehensive view of a large area; we can get the images and information we need immediately. Now, instead of merely reflecting on tragic beauty, we can act.

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