Dr. Neubronner’s Pigeon Photographers

Published February 26, 2017
Neubronner Library Congress Portrait
Dr. Julius Gustav Neubronner, date unknown.Library of Congress

Julius Neubronner With Pigeon Camera
Dr. Neubronner posing with a pigeon and camera, 1914.Wikimedia Commons

Pigeon With Chest Camera Lens
Pigeon sporting a camera on a breastplate, 1914.Wikimedia Commons

Trio Pigeon Photographers
Pigeons wearing cameras at a German exhibition, 1909.Wikimedia Commons

Aerial Pigeon Shot Wing
Aerial images from a pigeon camera, including wing tips visible on the edges, 1908.Wikimedia Commons

Miniature Pigeon Camera Timing Mechanism
1903 photograph on display at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.Wikimedia Commons

Hanging Pigeon Camera
Dr. Neubronner's patented pigeon camera with two lenses, with cuirass and harness, 1909.Wikimedia Commons

Aerial Pigeon Shot Neighborhood
Residential aerial shot, 1908.Wikimedia Commons

Stuffed Pigeon Flight
Stuffed pigeon displaying camera, 1903.Flickr/Javier Peláez

Patent Diagram Double Lens
Sectional view and pneumatic system of Dr. Neubronner's patented pigeon camera with two lenses, 1909.Wikimedia Commons

Patent Pigeon Camera Diagrams
Detailed sketches of breast-mounted carrier pigeon camera with two lenses, 1906.Wikimedia Commons

Popular Science Illustration Pigeon
Illustration of a pigeon photographer, Popular Science Monthly, 1916Wikimedia Commons

Carrier Pigeon Photography Tower
Pigeon photography demonstration, Popular Science Monthly, 1916Wikimedia Commons

Neubronner Pigeon Photo Wagon
Dr. Neubronner's mobile dovecote and darkroom, Deutschen Technikmuseum, Berlin.Wikimedia Commons/1971markus

Cia Velcro Pigeon Camera
Pigeon camera used by the CIA, inspired by Dr. Neubronner's invention.Flickr/Central Intelligence Agency

Carrier Pigeons Mechanix
Article in Modern Mechanix, February 1932Modern Mechanix

Kronberger Museum Pigeon
Pigeon photography display, Stadtmuseum, Kronberg, Germany.Wikimedia Commons/Dontworry

Pigeon Photographer Museum Poster
Pigeon photography display, Swiss Museum of Photography, Vevey, Switzerland.Wikimedia Commons/Fanny Schertzer

Doppel Sport Panorama Camera
Dr. Neubronner's Doppel-Sport Panorama Camera, Fotomuseum Antwerp. Wikimedia Commons/Vincent Ho

Pigeon Doppel Sport Taxidermy
Pigeon photographer with Doppel-Sport camera, Swiss Museum of Photography, Vevey, Switzerland.Wikimedia Commons/Rama

Museum Taxidermy Pigeon Photo
Pigeon photographer on display, International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C.Flickr/Jared Eberhardt

In 1902, German apothecary and inventor Dr. Julius Neubronner read a news report about pigeons and got angry. The news came out of Boston, where an American pharmacist was using carrier pigeons to deliver prescriptions. What so upset Dr. Neubronner was how the report entirely omitted the true pioneer behind the practice: his father, Dr. Wilhelm Neubronner.

So Dr. Julius Neubronner, inspired by the slight, purchased some pigeons and began training them to deliver vials of medicine to a nearby sanatorium. He took a liking to the birds, evidently, because he soon integrated them not only into his family business, but into his personal passion: photography.

Using a miniature, time-released camera and an aluminum breast harness, in 1907 Dr. Neubronner began experimenting with a novel way to capture aerial photographs: deploying a squad of pigeon photographers.

Neubronner sought a patent for his pigeon camera, and the German patent office initially rejected his application. Things changed when patent office officials saw the pictures themselves. Sure, they could have been taken by a hot-air balloonist, but the wings, visible on the periphery of the snapshot, gave up the true identity of the photographers.

Dr. Neubronner's innovation earned him great acclaim at exhibitions across Europe, and even sparked the interest of the German military, which conducted reconnaissance tests using the technology during World War I. Advancement in aviation techniques during the war cooled their inquiry, however, and Dr. Neubronner soon ceased development.

But his ideas didn't vanish altogether: In the 1930s, the German and French militaries reportedly dabbled in recruiting pigeon shutterbugs for reconnaissance missions. Later, the CIA even developed their own pigeon-powered camera, the details of which remain classified to this day.

See how Neubronner did it and the results his avian photographers achieved in the gallery above.

Enjoy photographers who use cameras in innovative and exciting ways? Try 20 underwater photos that will blow your mind or the 33 best GoPro photos ever taken.

Kellen Perry
Kellen Perry writes about television, history, music, art, video games, and food for ATI, Grunge, Ranker, Ranker Insights, and anyone else that will have him.