Drone photography is in the news this week, with protesters in Istanbul using unmanned cameras to document the events from above. Interestingly, the very first instance of remote aerial photography was devised to document an urban crisis, too: the 1906 earthquake that partially leveled San Francisco.

George R. Lawrence was an eccentric, brilliant aviator and photographer whose many claims to fame included building the largest camera ever made for his time. He was also interested in aerial photography—though after he fell 200 feet from a balloon, he decided to go another route: Kites. Using a 50-pound camera strung from a boom-stabilized kite, Lawrence produced some of the first aerial photos of the era, including suburbs, coastlines, and cities. He called his device "the Captive Airship."

Lawrence's setup.

Lawrence's most famous image—and the one that made him buckets of money—was shot 1,000 feet above San Francisco in 1906. Six weeks after the 7.9 magnitude quake (and resulting fires) that killed 3,000 San Franciscans, Lawrence sent his silk-string kite skyward from a ship off the coast of the city. Then, he triggered the camera by shooting a battery current up to the device, capturing an iconic image of the still-smoldering city. The resulting photo became iconic—in fact, in 2006, an artist went to great lengths to shoot a modern-day equivalent.


Because bird’s-eye-view images were so rare at that time, Lawrence’s photos became a sensation—and they made him incredibly rich. He sold prints of his San Francisco shot for $125 a piece (more than $3,000 today), and eventually made almost half a million dollars, in today’s money, from the image. Check out some of Lawrence's other shots below—from a turn-of-the-century football game to an aerial view of Park Slope. [Chicago Magazine, via PetaPixel]

A shot taken from the ground in San Francisco in 1906.


A close-up of San Francisco in 1906.

A shot of early Prospect Park South, Brooklyn.


A Michigan vs. Chicago football game in Ann Arbor.

The "International Ballooning Contest," in Chicago.


The inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt.