October 13, 1860
A milestone in aviation occurred in the skies above Boston, Massachusetts, when James Wallace Black took photographs of the city while traveling above it in a hot-air balloon. Black, a one-time artist who set aside his palettes and paint brushes to pursue instead the still-nascent endeavor of photography, flew over Boston in a balloon called “Queen of the Air.”
The balloon was owned and piloted by aviation pioneer Samuel A. King, and it reached a height of 1,200 feet (365.8 meters) on that autumn day. Black used the airborne opportunity to take a total of eight photographs of the city below; the clearest and best-quality image (included with this transportation history post) was published in the Boston Herald. The caption accompanying the photograph read: “Boston as the Eagle and Wild Goose See It.”
Black was not the first person to take photographs from a bird’s-eye view in an aircraft; that distinction belongs to Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (better known as Nadar), who took aerial images of Paris, France, while flying in a balloon two years earlier. Those photographs taken by Nadar no longer exist, however, and as a result Black’s own inflight achievement yielded what has become the earliest surviving example of aerial photographs throughout the world rather just in the United States.
Black’s achievement also helped awaken many others to the potential applications of human flight, and what he did in the skies over the Athens of America continues to impact our lives today. As noted in Google’s official blog several years ago, “We at Google owe James Wallace Black a debt of gratitude; without his early experimentation in aerial imagery, Google Earth may never have come to be.”
Additional information on James Wallace Black’s balloon 1860 balloon flight above Boston is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Wallace_Black and https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283189