Aerial photography and the spoils of war



This large aerial camera (YPM HST.040542), nearly complete in its original trunk, was made for the use of the German military during World War One. That conflict saw aerial photography conducted from airplanes rather than from balloons and airships first begin to play a vital role in military reconnaissance.


A British aerial photographer during WW1 (Credit: BBC)


This camera is a model RK II 300 from Internationale Camera Ag (ICA) of Dresden. ICA formed from a merger of four companies in 1909, and it would become part of the Zeiss Ikon company in 1926. Take a look at their catalogs from just before and just after WW1.




The RK II 300’s main camera barrel appears to be constructed of lightweight wood and covered in a green textile secured with nails. There is a Zeiss lens inside the barrel labeled “Nr.311390 Triplet 1:4,8 F=50cm Fliegertruppe” – with “Fliegertruppe” having been the name of the air division of the German Army during WW1. The camera was designed for use with 13 x 18 cm. (5 x 7 in.) roll film plates, whose cases are also marked Fliegertruppe.




British forces may have captured this aerial camera from the Germans, since it was sold on by the Miscellaneous Disposals Syndicate Ltd., a London company which had a contract to dispose of surplus government equipment. George McMurtrie Godley (1875-1940) of New York City tested it and then bought it at the company’s premises near the airship hangars of the London airbase RAF Cardington in 1923.


The “airship sheds” at RAF Cardington (Credit: Wikipedia)


Godley, although born into a bakers’ supply family, was a metallurgical engineer who had trained at MIT (class of 1898) and in Germany. He served in the cavalry during the earlier years of WW1 but was by 1917-18 a civilian executive officer of Linde Air Products of New York, the American subsidiary of a German industrial gas manufacturer. In 1923, Godley had this aerial camera shipped to NYC on the luxury liner Aquitania – a sister ship of the ill-fated Lusitania, which had been famously sunk by a German submarine.


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George McMurtrie Godley’s draft registration record from 1918


Further research into this aerial camera may be one of this year’s student projects – so watch this space for future discoveries!

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