By U.S. ArmyNovember 16, 2012
George W. Goddard pioneered many of the advances in aerial recon,
experimenting with infrared photography, long-focal length camera lenses,
"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, and
synchronization would be achieved.
Goddard's dream finally became a reality on November 20, 1925, when he set
up a test over Rochester, New York. 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, fourteen feet long and
eight inches in diameter, packed with eighty 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."