Old, Weird Tech: Dr. Neubronner's Patented Miniature Pigeon Camera

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Innovation happens on the margins of our world's knowledge and tools, in the place Steven Johnson has popularized as "the adjacent possible." We tend to focus on this space when looking at the major innovations, how so-and-so used existing technologies to make something fundamentally new. But out there at the margins of tech, lots of things get tried and have some success. Take Dr. Julius Neubronner's combination of three very different technologies: the homing pigeon, the newly miniaturized roll-film camera, and the timer.

The mechanisms were simple. A camera with a pneumatic timing mechanism was attached to a bird with a cute little harness. Then, the bird was released, and every so often, the timer would go off, and a puff of compressed air would trigger the exposure. The birds had a range of something like 60 miles, which meant they could get substantial coverage (albeit not if enemy lines were neatly drawn).

The heyday for carrier pigeon photography was definitely World War I, in which Neubronner brought his birds to the battles of Verdun and Somme. The Spy Museum in Washington, DC has a room dedicated to the surveillance service the birds rendered.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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