Privacy issues have come to the fore in recent years as technology has enabled prying on all facets of everyday life. Even Google’s camera-equipped cars that drive slowly through neighborhoods capturing street views have raised some concerns. Aerial photography and surveillance, once primarily the purview of military and intelligence forces, has become an issue as improved cameras and platforms have developed. In fact, recently, privately owned camera-equipped drones have been involved in two incidents in Connecticut: a potentially dangerous fire at a Branford quarry, and a fatal automobile accident in the Hartford area. Whether or not such remote surveillance poses a threat to personal freedom is a question open to debate I suppose.
But did you know that one of the pioneers of aerial photography was from Connecticut? John Gilbert Doughty (1857-1910) of Winsted was active as a photographer beginning in the latter decades of the 19th century. What set Doughty apart from his contemporaries, however, was his decision in 1885 to go aloft to capture views of Connecticut’s countryside. By all accounts the only previous attempt at such photography was an 1860 balloon ascension in Boston. While balloons were used on occasion during the Civil War for reconnaissance, these typically were tethered to provide observers a fixed view of a battlefield or other site. Powered flight was still decades away in 1885, so the one option was still a hot air balloon; or rather a more hazardous coal gas- or hydrogen-filled balloon, which would provide added lift and range compared to simple hot air.
Alfred E. Moore had constructed a new balloon that year with aerial photography in mind. Measuring 80 feet tall and 120 feet in circumference, it was designed to carry up to three individuals, photographic equipment, plus the balloonist’s usual gear (ballast sandbags, an iron grapple or anchor on a long line to slow and finally stop a drifting balloon prior to landing). The basket even featured a square hole in its bottom to facilitate photographing directly down. The equipment seemed more ready than the photographer, as Doughty later confessed “No one who ever thinks of making an ascension can possibly dread the experience more than I did…” But the new balloon’s first test flight in Winsted that July was made without Doughty, who made photographs of it in flight with his feet firmly planted on the ground. Doughty first broke free of the earth on September 2, and the fears he had felt quickly melted away as the balloon smoothly rose in the late afternoon before reaching an altitude estimated at more than 7,000 feet. This short duration flight also allowed him time to experiment with his gear, which he later tweaked to better offset the slow rotating motion of the balloon.
The big test came in a subsequent flight in October, with Doughty again on board. Balloonist Moore and Doughty planned a longer excursion, beginning in Winsted and using the prevailing westerly winds to bring them to Hartford; ultimately, they were forced to land in Windsor, where the balloon was snagged by a large chestnut tree. Doughty, now completely free of the dread of flight, shot a fascinating series of images of towns along the route from altitudes exceeding 5,000 feet, providing people then and now an amazing view of the state.
Recently CHS was able to acquire a collection of Doughty’s photographs, glass negatives, lantern slides and cameras, which add to our previous holdings of his work, both terrestrial and aerial. While Doughty’s fear of flying was genuine and perhaps visceral at times, he must have taken great comfort and pride in the results of this pioneering feat. So enjoy a brief aerial tour of 1885 Connecticut courtesy of John Gilbert Doughty!