Up in the Air

The Eastman Kodak Co. was instrumental in furthering aerial photography to aid the military efforts during World War I. When the United States entered the fighting in April, 1917, Kodak backed the mission with $8.5 million, plus significant amounts of taxes in Europe and Australia to support Allied war efforts, in addition to George Eastman’s personal contributions to many relief causes. Eastman also collaborated with Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in supplying materials for airplane wings, unbreakable lenses for gas masks, and in reorganizing the government’s binocular business when the original supplier fell behind in deliveries and quality.

However, when George Eastman offered to set up an aerial photography school at Kodak, it was turned down by the Secretary of War “on the excuse that they could not send men away from their camps for instruction.” Instead, the government opened the School of Aerial Photography in October, 1917, at Langley Field in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The school trained enlisted men in the art and skill of aerial photography. Using a twin-seat biplane, the pilot and photographer could work together to obtain information about areas that were inaccessible through ordinary methods, including areas behind enemy lines during times of warfare. Photos taken by aerial photographers, however, had to be developed and printed on the ground. Several months after Langley Field was started, the Army asked for help because production had fallen behind.

Kodak reminded the Army of its earlier willingness to help, but the officers who were then in charge were not aware of the original offer. The problem was resolved when a January, 1918 letter from George Eastman offered the Government the use of the fourth floor of Building 50, which was just being completed, for a period not exceeding six months from February 1st (1918), free of charge. The Army consolidated three schools of aerial photography–Langley Field, Cornell, and Fort Sill–and used Kodak experts to train 1,000 men at a time in Rochester.

Between March, 1918 and the end of the year, 1,995 students graduated from the United States School of Aerial Photography in Rochester, plus 182 graduates from the camera repair course, for a total of 2,177. Among these graduates, 230 of them were from Rochester.

Kodak was an early pioneer in aerial photos as smaller, lighter cameras began to be developed. Kites and balloons were used initially and, in 1909, a picture taken above Kodak Park was labeled as a kite photo. Aerial technology was progressing quickly in the first part of the 20th century and proved valuable in the war effort. In 1914, soldiers went up in balloons and reported to their artillery by telephone. By 1917, soldiers would take cameras with them.

World War I ended in November, 1918. The armistice was announced only eight months after the Aerial School had opened. However, a new field of military service had been created that would become increasingly more important in the future.

A group of pilots and Eastman Kodak representatives stand near a biplane at Britton Field during the Army’s photo-aviation try outs co-sponsored by the Eastman Company. From left to right they are Lieutenant Potter, pilot of the plane pictured; Captain Stevens (seated in the plan) photographer for the U.S. Air Service; William R. Polmer, “Daddy” of the graflex camera used in aerial photography; Frank O. Strowger of the Eastman Co.; and Captain John Gordon, formerly of the Army Air Service photographic section now (at the time of photograph) working for Eastman Co.

Rochester Herald photographer Albert Stone sits in the rear of an airplane piloted by Earl F. Beers. Stone is leaning over the edge of the plane with his camera grasped in both hands. The caption that accompanied a printing was “First photographs of Rochester from air ever taken by news photographer”.

From the booklet, Kodak Park in War Time, courtesy of the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

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