Today, the Massachusetts State Quarter Coin remembers the historical activities of two gentlemen in Boston 155 years ago.
A reader in April 1959 asked about the first aerial photograph, and the Southeast Missourian printed the following answer:
The first recorded aerial photograph was a view of Boston made on October 13, 1860 by Boston photographer James Wallace Black from the balloon “Queen of the Air,” which was held by a cable 1200 feet over the city and navigated by Samuel Archer King of Providence, Rhode Island.
Black exposed eight negatives (wet plates) in all, of which only one turned out well.
Black and King had made a previous attempt to take a similar photograph of Providence, but had failed because of weather conditions.
Earlier in September 1943, the Schenectady Gazette printed a brief mention of a Boston exhibit:
Boston, (UP)—The first successful aerial photograph—a downtown Boston scene snapped from a balloon, October 13, 1860—has been exhibited here. Professor Samuel A. King, an aeronautical expert, and J. W. Black, a photographic artist, took the picture. Its clarity and detail were unsurpassed for a half century despite advances in photography.
More clarification was included in the Free Lance-Star of October 1967, “There were earlier photographs made from balloons in Paris, but all have disappeared,” according to Dr. Louis W. Sipley, director of the museum and owner of the Boston wet plate negative.
But, let’s go back in time…back to the era of the photograph.
Mr. Black’s photography caught the eye of Oliver Wendell Holmes.
His article in the Atlantic Monthly of July 1863, mentioned the photograph and described it, and some claim his article gave the photograph its descriptive title :
It is a relief to soar away from the contemplation of these sad scenes and fly in the balloon which carried Messrs. King and Black in their aerial photo graphic excursion. Our townsman, Dr. John Jeffries, as is well recollected, was one of the first to tempt the perilous heights of the atmosphere, and the first who ever performed a journey through the air of any considerable extent.
We believe this attempt of our younger townsmen to be the earliest in which the aeronaut has sought to work the two miracles at once, of rising against the force of gravity, and picturing the face of the earth beneath him without brush or pencil.
One of their photographs is lying before us.
Boston, as the eagle and the wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its caves 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 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.
Towards the circumference it grows darker, becoming clouded and confused, and at one end a black expanse of waveless water is whitened by the nebulous outline of flitting sails.
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.
While the aeronaut is looking at our planet from the vault of heaven where he hangs suspended, and seizing the image of the scene beneath him as he flies, the astronomer is causing the heavenly bodies to print their images on the sensitive sheet he spreads under the rays concentrated by his telescope.
Today, this earliest preserved aerial photograph with its view of Boston resides in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, though their web site shows it as “Not on view.”
Their detail of the picture:
Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It
Artist: James Wallace Black (American, 1825–1896)
Medium: Albumen silver print from glass negative
Dimensions: Image: 18.5 x 16.7 cm (7 5/16 x 6 9/16 in.), irregularly trimmed Mount: 20.3 x 17 cm (8 x 6 11/16 in.), irregularly trimmed
Credit Line: Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005
Accession Number: 2005.100.87
The Massachusetts State Quarter Coin shows against an image of the oldest preserved aerial photograph, circa 1860.