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NGA in History - Defining Moments

First Aerial Photo Above the U.S.

On Oct. 13, 1860 photographer James W. Black, operating Samuel A. King’s hot-air balloon “Queen of the Air,” took the first aerial photo made in the United States when he captured this image above Boston Common. Black’s photo came just two years after French photographer and balloonist Nadar took the first known aerial photograph. This image of Black’s is of particular historic importance, as much of what he captured was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1872 and Nadar’s earliest images have not survived.

The marriage of Black’s camera and King’s balloon inaugurated the combination of technologies that created modern aerial intelligence. Just two years later, the Union Army would use aerial imagery captured from balloons to observe Confederate troops in Virginia.

Of the historic photo, Harvard professor Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote "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."

Associated Document(s)