This Picture of Boston, Circa 1860, Is the World’s Oldest Surviving Aerial Photo | Smart News | Smithsonian
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This Picture of Boston, Circa 1860, Is the World’s Oldest Surviving Aerial Photo

A sight from 2,000 feet, a view of 1860s Boston

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“Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It” by James Wallace Black. Photo: James Wallace Black / The Met

The first flight of an untethered hot air balloon—humanity’s first really successful attempt at flight—took place in 1783 when “Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes” flew over Paris. The first real photograph was taken in 1826 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took a picture out of his window. It took more than 30 years for someone to put these two inventions together to bring us the world’s first photo from the air. That photo, an 1858 aerial image of Paris, France, captured by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon is no longer with us. But the next best thing, says PetaPixel, is in the caring hands of the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: an 1860 photograph of Boston captured from 2,000 feet. The Met:

Best known for his photographs of Boston after the devasting fire of 1872, Black launched his solo career in 1860 with the production of a series of aerial photographs taken from Samuel King’s hot-air balloon the “Queen of the Air.”

… Black’s photographs caught the attention of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poet and professor of medicine at Harvard, who gave this photograph its title. In July 1863, Holmes wrote in the “Atlantic Monthly”: “Boston, as the eagle and wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys. The Old South and Trinity Church are two landmarks not to be mistaken. Washington Street slants across the picture as a narrow cleft. Milk Street winds as if the old cowpath which gave it a name had been followed by the builders of its commercial palaces. Windows, chimneys, and skylights attract the eye in the central parts of the view, exquisitely defined, bewildering in numbers…. As a first attempt it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.”

For what it’s worth, Boston-proper (a city renamed from the Algonquin territory of Shawmut) was at this time already 230 years old.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Long History of 3D Photography
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper Photograph: The Story Behind the Famous Shot

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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