Today, we change our view of the world. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
As a young model-airplane
builder, I sent my proxies into the sky, while I --
bound to the earth -- could only watch from below.
I thought a lot how I could make them tell me what
they'd seen up there. Once I put a tiny camera,
with a pneumatic timer, in the belly of a huge
glider I'd made. But all I got for my trouble was a
My fascination mirrored 19th-century fascination.
Photography had matured quickly after the
Daguerreotype process proved workable. Those first
pictures took fifteen minutes to expose. But
cameras were now being turned on everything in
sight, and film speeds were relentlessly being
Balloons also captured the 19th-century mind. So
it's no surprise that in 1858 a Paris photographer
took his clumsy gear 240 feet into the air to
photograph the village of Petit Bicetre. A Paris
cartoonist jibed at him for carrying photography to
the "highest" art, but no matter. The seed was
Mapmakers saw the potential of combining cameras
with flight from the beginning. In 1839 a scientist
told the French Academy that the new art of
photography would serve mapmaking. A mapmaker named
Laussedat had already tried to photograph the earth
from a kite. When that failed, he went on to
develop earth-based techniques for combining
photography with surveying.
Balloons also failed to provide the stable and
navigable platform that was needed for aerial
mapping. But as the airplane matured, it was able
to serve that purpose. Aerial photo-reconnaissance
became a prime element in the business of WW-I.
As a result, you could buy a commercial
aerial-mapping camera by 1920. Of course a camera
gives you only a photograph -- not a finished map.
Twenty hours of data reduction are needed to
process an hour's photography. But anyone who's
walked the woods as a surveyor knows the hard
Now computers and image enhancement are bringing
whole new orders of accuracy to the business.
Suddenly, we have topographical maps of the far
side of the moon and the canals of Mars.
Being able to stand and see what we could only
imagine before changes what we see. When I was five
my father showed me a panorama shot from a balloon
66,000 feet above the Black Hills. He pointed to
the gentle curve of the far horizon and said, "See,
the world really is round." Suddenly I knew that
outrageous claim was true after all. Twenty years
ago we first saw the island Earth as it looked from
the moon -- all fragile, blue and white, and far
more beautiful than we'd dreamed. And it hasn't
been the same place since.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds