This Week in History: February 15th
February 7, 2013
By Ruth Quinn
When the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on 15 February 1898, America was launched into the Spanish American War. This conflict was important in the evolution of Military Intelligence as it marked the Army's first real experimentation into aerial photo surveillance. While balloons had been used for aerial observation during the Civil War, this aerial observation platform was not combined with photography until later in the Nineteenth Century. Arthur Batut, a French photographer, made the first aerial photograph from a kite platform in 1889, and the idea took off. Kites were cheaper, safer, and more portable than balloons. They provided a whole new dimension to photographs, offering a view on the world from a perspective that had not been seen before.
How did it work? The cameras used shutters which were triggered by clock devices or fuses. They were held close to the kite and an altimeter would record the altitude of the kite when the picture was taken, which would make it possible to scale the image. Timing was controlled by a slow-burning fuse that was lit when the kite was launched; after the picture was taken a white flag was dropped and the kite was reeled in.
The Army began to experiment with aerial photography in the 1890s, hanging a camera from a large kite. This particular technique was not of lasting use, but the experiment sparked renewed interest in observation balloons -- for the first time since the Civil War. On July 30, 1909, Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois successfully completed a 10-mile round-trip qualifying flight with Orville Wright, the first military flight in US history. On August 2, 1909, the Signal Corps purchased the Wright Flyer for $30,000 and redesignated the airplane Signal Corps Airplane No. 1. By 1916's Punitive Expedition into Mexico, the Army was able to field the First Aero Squadron, commanded by none other than Major Foulois. The invention of the airplane and the exciting new possibilities of aerial photography, with its humble beginnings in balloons and on kites, would change Army Imagery Intelligence forever.