Lieutenant takes world’s first night aerial photograph
Nov. 20, 1925
George Goddard pioneered many of the advances in aerial reconnaissance experimenting with infrared photography; long-focal length camera lenses; and “quick work photography” which allowed photographers to develop their photos within minutes and put them in the hands of the ground commanders.
A long-time dream of Goddard’s was to perfect aerial photography at night, which would prevent the enemy from hiding their activities under a cloak of darkness. He had experimented, successfully, with powder bombs, devices that would be dropped from a plane, explode, and trigger a plane-mounted camera’s shutter at the same moment the charges lit up the night sky. Not only extremely dangerous, it was difficult to synchronize the brightest part of the blast with the camera’s shutter.
The first real breakthrough came when he witnessed a demonstration by telephone engineers operating their picture-transmitting equipment with a photo-electric cell inside a revolving drum. Goddard realized that the energy produced by the cell could be amplified to actuate the shutter of a camera. Then, when the light from the powder flash mounted on the tail of his airplane could trigger a camera shutter, synchronization would be achieved.
Goddard’s dream finally became a reality on Nov. 20, 1925, when he set up a test over Rochester, N.Y.
His crew consisted of the pilot, two lieutenants from the Army Ordnance Corps, his research partner, “Doc” Burke, and himself. Armed with a super-size powder bomb, 14 feet long and eight inches in diameter, packed with 80 pounds of explosive, the crew took off. They dropped the bomb around 11 o’clock at night over the city.
Twenty seconds later it exploded with a tremendous blast and brilliant light which was so fast it took the place of a shutter in the camera. The results took awhile to process, since they had to land the plane in darkness, get to their hotel — difficult because of the mass panic the explosion had caused.
Later that day, the newspapers proudly displayed the world’s first photograph ever taken at night from an airplane. When they got back to Dayton, there was a letter from Goddard’s commanding officer saying, “from now on, [expletive] let the people know before you scare the hell out of them. And congratulations for a terrific job.”
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