You’ve heard of carrier pigeons, but what about photographer pigeons? As The New Yorker reports, a German apothecary and inventor named Julius Neubronner advanced the field of aerial photography in the early 20th century by attaching cameras to his homing pigeons and setting them loose. Consider the birds the original drones.

Except that wasn’t Neubronner’s original intent when he built the pigeon camera back in 1907. He occasionally used pigeons to deliver prescriptions to and from a sanatorium a few miles away from his home in Kronberg (near Frankfurt), and he wanted to track where they flew. So he set out to invent a solution.

His device consisted of a leather harness and aluminum breastplate that allowed a lightweight camera to be attached to a pigeon’s body. A built-in pneumatic timer let the pigeons snap multiple photos mid-flight. As The New Yorker notes, “Whether the cameras would actually capture the desired object, however, depended on luck and the whims of the pigeons.”

The patent for his invention was nearly rejected because the German patent office thought the apparatus was too heavy for pigeons to carry (it wasn’t). He eventually received a patent in 1908 and went on to showcase his invention at expositions in Dresden, Frankfurt, and Paris. He even made a bit of money by selling postcards showcasing the pigeons’ photos, which were snapped and developed on the spot.

At the time, aerial photos were only achieved through the use of balloons or kites, and the range of motion was limited in those cases. Neubronner’s clever use of the available technology was later adapted for wartime purposes, and Germany’s military tested out the pigeon cameras on Western Front battlefields, according to The Public Domain Review. However, airplanes quickly surpassed the pigeons' capabilities and “consigned Neubronner’s birds to their traditional role of carrying messages,” the Review notes. But their voyages live on in the photographs they captured.

Julius Neubronner/Jennavecia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain Mark 1.0

[h/t The New Yorker]