San Francisco in Ruins
'SAN FRANCISCO IN RUINS' is the title of this world-famous photograph. George Lawrence's panorama camera produced a mammoth negative of 18 x 48 inches and was raised 2,OOO feet over the bay by his "Captive Airship," or kite train. Even in this reduction it is possible to see that block after block of the city was burned flat and totally destroyed. Lawrence sold copies of this photo to newspapers and individuals and is reported to have earned $15,OOO from these sales. (This is the equivalent of approximately $210,000 today.) LOC

George Lawrence

A Giant in Kite Aerial Photography


Every student of kite history knows that George Lawrence, the famous turn-of-the-century photographer, used kites in his aerial work But two questions have been hanging unanswered in the brief spaces given to Lawrence in kite literature.
  1. Did Lawrence use kites in taking his astonishing photograph of the 1906 San Francisco post-earthquake fire? -- or did he use balloons?
  2. If Lawrence used kites, what was the size of the camera he lofted? Was it his monster 900-pounder? Or just a moderately big one?

Simon Baker of East Carolina University has collected and analyzed George Lawrence information for years. He has the answers.

My curiosity about George Raymond Lawrence, the kite aerial photographer, is a story going back more than 10 years and it begins with my reading of Beaumont Newhall's book Airborne Camera.

The fabulous photograph on display at the 1960 exhibition of the work of George Lawrence at the Chicago Historical Society. His son and daughter-in-law are looking at an original contact print. CHS
One of the most spectacular photographs in the book is of San Francisco after the great fire following the 1906 earthquake. I had seen it before and assumed that the camera was carried aloft by a balloon over San Francisco Bay. Airplanes in 1906 were not yet being used to make aerial photographs this large; the negative was a staggering 18" x 48".

Newhall related that the camera was lifted into the air by kites, but he had little to say about how it was kept steady to make such a sharp image or how much it actually weighed. For answers to these and other questions, I began a long research.

First I went to my university library and found nothing on Lawrence. Later, on a trip to Washington, D.C., I visited the Library of Congress and discovered that its huge catalog of books also had nothing by or about him!

However, the Library of Congress people did direct me to an obituary for George R. Lawrence published in the New York Times of December 16, 1938. This provided me with a brief outline of the high points of his life and career. The librarians also found a pair of short articles in The Encyclopedia of Photography entitled, "Biography of George R. Lawrence" and "Kite and Balloon Photography." They also suggested that I visit the Prints and Photographs Collection of the Library of Congress and examine its catalog of holdings. They reasoned that, since Lawrence was a commercial photographer, he might have sent copies of his products to the Library of Congress in order to obtain copyrights on them.

The Prints and Photographs Collection did and does indeed have many examples of the work of George R. Lawrence. There are photographs of big banquet groups, state legislatures in session, and the Republican National Conventions of 1904 and 1908. All of these large interiors were captured on oversized negatives with remarkable clarity and detail. The means employed was a system of electrically fired flashguns using an improved flash powder invented by Lawrence. There are other photographs showing large crowds in attendance at horse races, baseball and football games. In order to make many of these outdoor photographs, Lawrence carried his cameras aloft on guyed ladders or a portable collapsible tower. This tower was of his own invention and construction reaching more than 200 feet into the air.

Also in the collection are large photographs of entire industrial plants, located mostly in the Midwest. Of greatest interest to me were the aerial photographs which are remarkable for their size and clarity and the fact that the cameras were lifted into the air by what Lawrence called the "Captive Airship" or kite train. My curiosity was piqued and I had to know more about the man and his method.

Having learned from his obituary that Lawrence lived and worked in Chicago, I sent letters to every museum and scientific society in the city to learn who might have information about this native son. The only one responding positively was the Chicago Historical Society. This organization owned a number of original Lawrence photographs and had exhibited them in a special show in 1960. Some time later, while on a visit to Chicago, I went to the Historical Society and examined their holdings.

At that time I also met a commercial photographer named Thomas Yanul who was working on a biography of George R. Lawrence. Yanul very kindly shared his information with me, and what I know of the operation of the aerial panoramic camera comes from him. He had personally seen and photographed one of the few surviving panoramic cameras.

I also learned of the existence of two U.S. Navy reports on the operation of the "Captive Airship." It seems that the U.S. Army and Navy, at the prompting of President Theodore Roosevelt, invited Lawrence to demonstrate his system in 1905. These reports are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and I obtained copies of them. They represent the only firsthand factual information I have been able to find about how the kites were flown and how the stabilizing system worked.

The report of Naval Lieutenant L H. Chandler of May 22, 1905 (Record Group 74) is very complete and comes with illustrations of the kites and the steadying apparatus.

Above, a train of nine Conyne kites is sent aloft to raise a camera which hangs suspended below the bottom kite. Each kite is attached to the main line by its own short line and is prevented from becoming entangled with it by a light bamboo rod. NARA

Above, the kite train and camera-steadying mechanism together make up what Lawrence called his 'Captive Airship." Three equally spaced 15-foot-long booms radiate out from the cradle which holds the camera. At the tip of each boom is a lead weight and a silk cord 12O feet long is also attached. The other ends of the three cords are tied together directly below the camera and a three-pound lead weight is attached at that point (not visible in this view). In this case, a flat plate camera is being flown rather than a panoramic camera. NARA

Lieutenant Chandler commented on the weight of the latter by saying that he could lift it with his left hand and that it did not exceed 15 pounds. Further testing at sea was recommended by Chandler. George Lawrence, accompanied by two assistants along with cameras, films, and steadying apparatus, came on board the U.S.S. Maine on August 25, 1905. Here a team of officers, consisting of Lieutenant Commanders W. H. G. Bullard, A. L Willard, and Lieutenant J. H. Holden, observed and worked with Lawrence until he left the ship on October 7, 1905. Their report to the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic fleet (National Archives Record Group 74) is dated January 12, 1906. They timed the process from the ascent of the first kite until the camera was landed back on deck as averaging about one hour and a half. They also described the panoramic camera being used as having a 19-inch focal length, producing a 20 by 48 inch plate, and weighing 49 pounds.

Lawrence, it seems, built about seven versions of this panoramic camera. Some were smaller and some were larger than the one he used to demonstrate his system to the military. He used wood and aluminum in the construction of his aerial cameras and the weight of 49 pounds is authoritative. H. H. Slawson's article "Kite and Balloon Photography" appearing in The Encyclopedia of Photography speaks of "seven different aerial cameras, which weighed from 400 to 1000 pounds." These numbers were picked up by several other authors and appear in the few articles written about Lawrence and his methods.

There is some confusion here with a huge camera designed by Lawrence in 1900 for the purpose of photographing a new train of the Chicago and Alton Railway. This camera required a crew of 15 to move it around and set up, and weighed 900 pounds; 1400 pounds with the plate holder in place. It produced a contact print of eight by four-and-a-half feet and was obviously never lifted into the air.

Lawrence was interested in obtaining large panoramic views and he used ladders and his portable tower for this purpose. Soon he realized that he would have to get higher to obtain views of really large areas so he turned to hydrogen-filled balloons. On June 21, 1901, while photographing the Chicago stockyards from an altitude of 900 feet, he was being hauled down on completion of the task. About 200 feet above the ground, the network of ropes holding the gas bag severed, allowing it to escape, and Lawrence fell. At about 30 feet above the ground, his fall was broken by a network of telephone and telegraph wires. He hit the ground shaken but not seriously hurt. A second balloon mishap a month later in Minnesota seems to have convinced Lawrence that he should look for some other method of getting his camera into the air.

Silas J. Conyne, a Chicago inventor, patented a kite in 1902 for the purpose of raising aloft advertising banners to attract public attention. These kites appeared promising to Lawrence as a means of raising his cameras. He obtained the right to build Conyne's kites and embarked on a period of experimentation outside of Chicago in Zion, Illinois. Sometime between 1902 and 1904, he worked out the technique he was to use successfully until he went out of the photography business in 1910. He modified and improved well-known techniques for flying a train. A series of kites were attached by short lines and prevented from becoming entangled with the main kite line by the use of bamboo spreaders. By these means he was able to attain heights up to 2,000 feet lifting his large but relatively light panoramic cameras and the heavy piano wire cable of several strands. Depending on the wind velocity and the load to be lifted, Lawrence could fly as many as 17 kites in a train; however, five to 10 kites usually sufficed.

A diagrammatic representation of the "Captive Airship" being flown from a ship. The parts indicated are as follows: s, spreader rod to keep kite clear of the main line; g, the long booms extending 15 feet out from the base of the camera cradle; h, small lead weights of several ounces at the end of each boom; i, 120-foot long silk cords; j, the three-pound lead weight; o and p, a line and pulley to keep j from dragging in the water on launch and retrieval; and r, the winch.

Right inset, details of the steadying mechanism showing the two-point attachment to the kite line at a and f. The camera can be pointed by making adjustments at b, c, d, and e before it is sent aloft. A flat plate camera, k, is mounted in the cradle in this view. The camera shutter at m is operated by electromagnets receiving current through the wire, n, which is joined below this point to the main piano-wire kite line, which has an insulated copper wire as part of it. A battery on the ground provides the necessary current to operate the shutter. The other parts of this steadying mechanism, g, h, i, and j, are: 15-foot booms, lead weights of several ounces, 12O-foot-long silk cords, and a three-pound lead weight, respectively. This mechanism prevents the camera from turning and swinging like a pendulum in spite of the movement of the kites.

Diagrams and details after the report by Lieutenant L. H. Chandler, U.S. National Archives.

From the sharpness of his aerial photographs, it can be seen that Lawrence had devised effective means for holding his cameras steady while exposures were being made in a windy environment. The mount hanging suspended below the lowest kite in the train allowed the camera to be pointed and fixed in any direction before being sent aloft. Once in the air, a system of booms, lines, and lead weights prevented the camera from excessive horizontal turning, while at the same time dampening the tendency of the camera to swing in the wind like a pendulum.

Lawrence solved the problem of tripping the shutter by incorporating an insulated wire as part of the steel kite line, and using it to carry an electric current up to the camera to release the spring-driven shutter.

For the purposes of aerial photography, Lawrence modified an existing type of panoramic camera which had a curved film plane and a lens mounted in a horizontally rotating barrel on vertical pivots. These lens barrels were mounted below the horizontal midline of the film plane, unlike commercially available panoramic cameras in which the lens was mounted opposite the midline. This was done so that the camera, which was usually level at the time of exposure, would produce a view showing more of the earth's surface and less of the sky. A simple focal plane shutter, consisting of a metal tube in the shape of a flattened cone, was mounted directly behind the lens inside the dark camera. As the lens turned through 160 degrees on its pivots, the image passed through a vertical slit in the rear of the flattened cone just in front of the film. The length of the exposure, for any part of the film, was determined by the width of the slit and the speed of traverse at which the spring mechanism drove the lens and the flattened-cone focal plane shutter. In order to reduce the comparatively abundant sky light and allow for a longer exposure of the darker land surface, he varied the width of the slit. The image reached the film upside down so he made the slit wider on top to increase the length of exposure of the darker land surface.

Above, a panoramic camera with its aluminum back removed to show the interior. When loaded, the film plane is curved to conform with the back. The focal plane shutter consists of a flattened cone which is mounted directly to the bock of the lens and swings around with it. The image reaching the film passes through the slit and that part of the film in front of the wide portion of the slit receives a longer exposure than that in front of the narrow portion. YANUL

Right, an early version of the steadying mechanism with a panoramic camera tied in the cradle. The lens of the camera is cocked to one side and held in place by an electrically activated solenoid. To make an exposure, a current from a battery is used to activate the solenoid. Once released in this fashion, a spring motor drives the lens through a very wide arc of more than 12O degrees. As the lens swings through this arc, the flattened cone shutter mounted directly behind it travels across the face of the film. CHS

Above, George Lawrence, wearing the derby, in the field with an assistant in Zion, Illinois (north of Chicago) in about 1903, making experiments with his "Captive Airship." When the kite train flies, the pull is so strong that it can only be controlled by the use of a winch. In fact, it is often necessary to anchor the winch as in this case, when it is tied to a tree stump. CHS
In his photographic career, George R. Lawrence was characterized by qualities of imagination and inventiveness. He took existing technological developments of his day, modified them and combined them in new ways to produce unique results. Being a commercial photographer, he kept the details of these techniques for himself.

When we compare his aerial photographs with those of other kite photographers who preceded him, it is clear that in this line of technology the ultimate development was achieved by Lawrence. His photographs were unique when he made them, and they compare favorably to similar types of aerial photographs made decades later -- even today -- by users of far more sophisticated technological devices than were available to him.


CHS: Chicago Historical Society
LOC: Library of Congress
NARA: National Archives
YANUL: Collection of Thomas Yanul

This article first appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of Kitelines magazine (Vol. 11, No. 1). Back issues are available at the Kitelife.com website.