University of Rochester Library Bulletin: "I Looked Back, And He Was Smiling"

Volume XXVI · Spring 1971 · Number 3
"I Looked Back, And He Was Smiling"

The first time I met Mr. George Eastman, as best as I can remember, was on November 22, 1925, the day following the taking of the world's first night aerial photograph over the downtown area of Rochester, New York.

For several months, prior to this event, I had been assigned to the Engineering Division at Dayton, Ohio, as Director of Research and Development of Aerial Photography. The taking of aerial photographs at night had been given a high priority by the Chief of Air Force, as the War Department studies of World War I had noted the enemy always depended on the dark hours of the day to move troops and supplies, and to construct his trenches and fortifications. After weeks of laboratory and field tests of flash powders, sensitized materials, optics and cameras and valuable consultations with Dr. Kenneth Mees, Director of the Eastman Kodak Research Laboratories, we decided to take the first aerial photograph over Rochester. On our flight from Dayton to Rochester in our two engine Martin Bomber, we were delayed in Cleveland where our airplane became stuck in the mud; we had to be towed to higher, better-drained ground for the take off. This delayed our arrival over Rochester until eleven o'clock that evening. We had planned to fly directly over the Genesee River in case the bomb, suspended on a parachute, failing to explode in the air, would fall harmlessly into the river. Apparently there was a strong cross wind, and our bomber was actually over the Eastman Kodak Tower on State Street when the bomb exploded with a brilliant flash and a thunderous bang.

The flashbomb was fourteen feet long, six inches in diameter and was made of thin laminated strips of wood glued together; so, very small harmless fragments of wood showered over the city. The bomb carried approximately ninety pounds of a special flashlight powder, which when confined in the strong wooden casing gave a very short duration flash, which actually served the same purpose of a camera shutter. On this mission the camera shutter was not used. Instead, a special metal capping plate uncovered the lens a second or so prior to the flash and closed it rapidly after the flash; this effectively stopped some of the movement of ground detail during the exposure, estimated to have been a twenty-fifth of a second.

Dr. Kenneth Mees and his technical assistants had set up elaborate light measuring equipment on the roof of the Kodak Tower and successfully recorded the quality of the light, duration and intensity of the flash. At the same time, using the light from my flash, they made a remarkably clear, fully exposed oblique photograph of the city.

After the test we landed at the Rochester airfield intending to rush to the Kodak Research Laboratory to develop our film. Much to our chagrin we were unable to get a phone connection, and the operator kept telling us the telephone system was jammed due to a big explosion in the city. One operator told us she had heard that the city boiler house heating system had blown up and fire engines were dashing around looking for the big disaster area.

We finally decided not to try to develop our film that night. Instead, we drove to the Seneca Hotel for the night and much needed sleep. All along the streets into town there were groups of people standing around trying to figure out the cause of the terrific explosion and flash which had shaken the city which usually turned in early on work days. Once or twice I could not decide whether or not to turn around and fly back to Dayton, but my assistant was joyful. "What's the matter with you, George?" he asked. "It's the picture that counts, man, the picture!"

All was quiet in Rochester the next morning when the newspapers in large headlines gave an explanation of the big explosion over the city.

We were up early and developed our film at the Eastman Kodak Research Laboratory. There was much rejoicing when the darkroom lights were turned on and, in the presence of Dr. Mees and his staff, we saw the world's first night aerial picture. The first phone call I made was to Major General Mason M. Patrick, Chief of the Army Air Service, who in turn contacted the War Department to report this achievement.

We remained in Rochester for a few days to plan further research and development work on the night photographic project. After we had made a few prints of the Rochester night photo, Dr. Mees and I drove to the Kodak offices on State Street to show them to Mr. George Eastman. He was located on the top floor of the sixteen story tower that had been "blasted" the night before.

Mr. Eastman exhibited a tremendous amount of interest as he looked at the night aerial picture and asked many technical questions about our R & D program at McCook Field in Dayton. Also, he asked, if Dr. Mees was giving me full support with his staff and laboratory facilities at Kodak Park. He was particularly interested in the details of how we were able to get a picture with a camera without a shutter, flying in an airplane at over 100 miles per hour. He was also interested in the details of the flash bomb and of how it was operated. He requested that I keep him personally advised of the progress being made and to send him new pictures showing the progress being made in Dayton. To further obtain his interest I gave him a short review of our Air Service Photographic Research and Development program. Most important, of course, was our aerial photographic mapping plans, using our tri-lens camera for map revision work, and our single lens camera work for large scale mosaic operations.

After the meeting with Mr. Eastman, in the presence of Dr. Mees, I came away with the feeling that I could get most anything I wanted from Kodak in the way of research and development. My budget for R & D at the Dayton, Ohio, Engineering Division was much too small to do the work which had to be performed; further, I did not have the necessary laboratory test equipment. I must admit I flew back to Dayton in a happy mood, and little did I realize that this valuable cooperation would be expanded year after year for the twenty-two years I served as director of the R & D laboratory in Dayton.

Early in 1930, I was given a tour of duty as Director of the Aerial Photographic School for officers and enlisted men at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. The school trained officers and enlisted men to manage the eighteen aerial photographic sections located in the United States, Panama, Hawaii and the Philippines. The officers were taught to fly aerial photographic missions, the top sergeants to operate the aerial cameras, and the enlisted men to perform the laboratory operations. Most of the aerial photographic missions were performed for the Army Corps of Engineers, the U. S. Geological Survey, and the U. S. Coast and Geodetic survey.

In June, 1930, prior to the officers graduation exercises, I thought it would be a good idea to have our officers fly their school training photographic airplanes to the Rochester, New York airport and to meet Mr. Eastman, who had expressed an interest in the school on one of my visits to his office. Eighteen officers made the flight and on arrival were met at the airport by Mr. Eastman. He chatted freely with them and showed great interest in hearing of their experiences in flying photographic training missions, etc.

It was a beautiful clear day and Mr. Eastman said he would like to have me fly him around the city. I told him I would be glad to, but would have to obtain permission from the Chief of the Air Corps in Washington. I telephoned immediately and was given the necessary permission, provided Mr. Eastman would sign a release certificate, which was a statement absolving the government from any claims in case of an accident. He readily signed the release which also included the aide who generally accompanied Mr. Eastman on trips away from his home and office.

The plane I was flying that day was one of the new Fairchild cabin-type airplanes built especially for aerial photography. It could carry five or six people, and from the inside looked like a flying greenhouse with large windows in both side doors, along the sides and over the ceiling of the front of the cabins. This was ideal for sightseeing, so we located Mr. Eastman in a seat at one of the doors which was practically all glass from top to bottom. Then there was a large hole in the floor so he could look straight down. Regulations called for the wearing of parachutes which, when wearing an overcoat, made it rather difficult for Mr. Eastman to crawl aboard and into his seat. However, he managed to do so and with a smile we took off to see, in particular, his offices on State Street, the facilities at Kodak Park, his home on East Avenue and one or two large parks along Lake Ontario and south of the city. He especially wanted to see the University of Rochester campus.

It was a good day for such a trip because it was not bumpy and the visibility was unusually good. His seat was back of mine so I could talk to him in a loud voice. First we flew around the University at about 500 feet and he pointed out several buildings of interest to his aide. We then circled around his home on East Avenue so he could look almost straight down through the large glass window in the door on his left. It was a high wing monoplane aircraft so the wing never obscured his view.

From East Avenue we flew to State Street and circled around the skyscraper close enough to recognize people at the windows. From there we followed the Genesee River out past the Hawkeye Plant to Kodak Park. We spent more time over this plant for there was so much to see. We made a couple of figure eights around the two high smoke stacks. I looked back, and he was smiling. Then we made a tight spiral right over the top of the chimneys so that he was able to look down into them. He had seen them so many times looking up from the ground it was quite a novelty to be looking down inside of them.

From there we continued down the Genesee River to Charlotte and around Durand-Eastman Park. I would say we spent an hour or so flying at a low altitude, then we wound up the flight at a higher altitude so he could see the Finger Lakes to the south.

After we had landed, Mr. Eastman could not thank me enough for the flight. He told me he had seen more of his home town in the hour long flight than he had during his entire life. He had not realized how certain areas had been developed. Looking down the chimneys at Kodak Park he thought was a real thriller, and he said he did not see too much soot.