Julius Neubronner, a man of the
Julius Neubronner (1852-1932) was not only an apothecary, art aficionado, company founder and hobby magician but an enthusiastic photographer as well. One of his inventions helped put him in the history books – as a pioneer of aerial photography. His innovation relied on a technology known since antiquity and one that was already a passion of the founder of the Neubronner apothecary dynasty: carrier pigeons.
Julius Neubronner´s father had already been utilizing carrier pigeons before him as part of his business. Speed and reliability were already an important economic factor in the 19th century – especially when it came to medical supplies. Wilhelm Neubronner thus stationed carrier pigeons with doctors in all the various communities in the surrounding areas of his town of Kronberg im Taunus. They carried the doctors´ prescriptions to his apothecary in tiny backpacks in the fastest way possible. Couriers then transported the prescription medicine and the pigeon to the intended patient using a larger backpack.
When Julius Neubronner took over his father´s apothecary, the inventory also included “Giftadler” (poison eagles), as people jokingly called them.
Neubronner´s magic tricks with pigeonsGerman Museum of Technology
Julius Neubronner not only sent his pigeons out as couriers, but also used them for magic tricks and for filming the magic shows.
Schloss Friedrichshof in Kronberg im Taunus from close range Schloss Friedrichshof in KronbergGerman Museum of Technology
When one of his most reliable pigeons once failed to return to its dovecote after four weeks, Neubronner became curious …and inventive.
“As a long-time supporter of amateur photography I was moved to half jokingly think that the only real way to find this out would be to use a tiny camera that would automatically take pictures at certain intervals.” (Julius Neubronner, Die Brieftaube als Photograph, in: Die Umschau, JG 12, Nr 41, 1920)
Julius Neubronner proceeded to develop a tiny camera with an automatic shutter release that could be harnessed to a pigeon. The pigeons were already used to carrying the cases for prescriptions so he only had to acclimate them to the weight of a camera.
Before long they made their first flights with a dummy camera, eating and drinking with it and even continuing their love life unimpeded.
The messenger pigeons could fly up to 100 kilometres in an hour with the camera mounted on them.
A single exposure of a series of testsGerman Museum of Technology
Neubronner was initially just curious to see what pictures the birds would arbitrarily bring back to him. After a while, however, he began to plan out the potential pictures in advance. Utilizing the known flight speed of 100km/h and the departure point, he calculated how long it would take for a bird to reach the vicinity of an object that he wanted to take a picture of. He then set his automatic shutter. When this turned out to be the case, the businessman side of Neubronner immediately saw the potential of his invention – and prepared documents for the patent office.
Drawings from the patent documentationGerman Museum of Technology
The 55 year old filed a patent application for a miniature camera weighing a mere 40 grams and equipped with a pneumatic shutter release.
The rubber ball (r) was inflated by a hose (t) before the pigeon began a flight. This reseted the shutter release. When the ball lost its air, the camera´s shutter release was activated and a photo was taken.
Carrier pigeon camera with two lenses. (1910)German Museum of Technology
The camera had two lenses, which greatly improved its chances of taking useful pictures. 12 photos could be taken on 3x6 centimeters negatives during each flight.
But Neubronner´s patent application was met with disbelief at the patent office and, even worse, it was denied.
Carrier pigeon with a Doppel Sport Panoramic cameraGerman Museum of Technology
Bird´s eye view of a half-timbered buildingGerman Museum of Technology
It was only after Neubronner provided them with certified photographs that the patent office finally granted a patent. Neubronner´s invention was patented on 2 December 1908 under the heading “Method of and Means for Taking Photographs of Landscapes from Above”.
Neubronner continued experimenting into the 1920s and eventually developed a dozen more improved camera models at great personal expense.
From idea to business model
Up until Neubronner´s invention, a bird´s-eye view was only a kind of lofty term in most people´s minds. Although hot-air balloon photography and the camera rocket had already been patented in 1858 and 1903 respectively, and the basic principles of kite aerial photography had been established in 1887, none of these inventions ever gained mass appeal. Julius Neubronner left no stone unturned in trying to popularize and market his beloved invention. In 1909 he presented his “System Dr. Neubronner” at the International Photography Exhibition in Dresden, which comprised 1600 exhibitors from 20 different countries. He sent his pigeons on flights, developed the pictures on-sight and converted them into “carrier pigeon postcards”. This was a marketing triumph and Neubronner´s aerial photography became a popular success.
Envelope for a series of six postcards (1909)German Museum of Technology
Neubronner proceeded to develop a whole range of products based on his pigeon photography: The portfolio included sets of postcards with bird´s-eye photographs as well as the mini-cameras themselves. These were packaged in an elegant wooden box together with additional film cutting equipment and a guarantee. For an extra fee, a really passionate amateur photographer could even purchase one of the feathered camera carriers.
Carnival parade in Kronberg im Taunus (1910)German Museum of Technology
Neubronner attended the Kronberg Carnival in 1910 with his own carriage. This was decorated with the lettering: "Get photographed by Dr. med. Neubronner's racing pigeons and frame them with Dr. med. Neubronner's paper strip.”
Main motive of the carriage: A pigeon with camera equipment.
Julius Neubronner (on the right) did not hesitate to ride on his carriage.
Neubronner not only marketed his bird´s-eye perspective for civilian purposes but was additionally convinced that the Prussian military would also find aerial photographs to be extremely useful. There were a number of good arguments for why the pigeons would be preferable to the other alternatives: The ability to guide hot-air balloons and kites, for instance, was completely dependent on the weather and camera rockets required loads of powder propellant for long distance use. In addition, only a very small number of steerable airships could operate at an altitude greater than 2000 metres, which was beyond the range of enemy guns. The flight direction and airspeed of pigeons, on the other hand, could be determined in advance regardless of the weather. They also flew lower and were a lot harder to shoot down than zeppelins.
The flight path of the carrier pigeon photographers (1910)German Museum of Technology
Julius Neubronner first contacted the Ministry of War a few months after his patent. He made a great effort to keep his invention secret in order to avoid endangering its potential use in spying operations. The military, however, was less than enthusiastic. He was to photograph the Berlin Waterworks at Lake Tegel from a distance of two kilometres without making use of an already existing dovecote. He thus set about building a portable dovecote with an integrated dark room and training his young pigeons, finally completing the mission in 1912.
Mobile dovecote for military useGerman Museum of Technology
When the 1st World War broke out, Neubronner was directed to make all his cameras and portable equipment available for military field. But the cameras were never used. When communication became impossible at the battle of Verdun, the pigeons were at least able to perform brilliantly in the role they were originally trained for – as messengers.
In 1918 Neubronner received notification that the military attached absolutely no value to his invention. It read: “Method for Photographing Sections of Land with the Aid of Pigeons. Relevant tests in the field have been consistently unsuccessful up until now. Since the advent of aerial photography, there is no longer any justification for further testing.“ (Julius Neubronner, see above)
Experiments with pigeon photographers were still being carried out in military safaris even after Neubronner´s death. In 1931, the German Army of the Third Reich made tests with cameras that could to take 200 pictures per flight. And as late as the 1970s, the CIA used pigeons for spying missions – the details of which are still classified to this day. “If mankind´s centuries old desire to fly had come to fruition a few years later, everything would have turned out differently. It was a strange coincidence that […] just at the moment that birds started to become human, humans became birds. “ (Julius Neubronner, see above)
The Julius Neubronner collection in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin (2018) by Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum BerlinGerman Museum of Technology
Editor: Isabel Wanger, Bettina Gries
Photo Editor: Antje Stritzke
Technical Support: Jannes Repke