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Black and white photo of New York City, above the clouds.

1920s New York City from the Sky

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With the first liftoff of Orville and Wilbur Wright into the sky in 1903, the world dramatically changed in an instant, and it did not take long for the implications of flight to be applied to the world of cartography. The value of aerial mapping became readily apparent with the advent of World War I. However, it was also soon discovered that traditional cameras, with their slow shutter speeds, were not equipped to handle taking photographs from a moving airplane.

After being rejected from the military due to poor health, Sherman M. Fairchild was determined to help the war effort in another way, through his passion for photography. Fairchild developed a camera with a between-the-lens shutter which produced much clearer images when used from an airplane. To continue to produce his cameras, in February 1920 he started the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation. From this beginning, Fairchild went on to found over 70 companies, introducing significant advancements in aviation, photography, aerial mapping, and eventually mapping the moon.

A large sepia toned map pieced together by assembling 100 aerial photographs of Manhattan and the Bronx.
Aerial survey, Manhattan Island, New York City. Map by Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation, 1921. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Detail of Fairchild map showing Polo Grounds, 1921.

Interested in pioneering aerial mapping, in 1921 Fairchild formed Fairchild Aerial Surveys. He took two aerial maps that same year, the first of Newark, New Jersey and the second of Manhattan Island, New York, seen above, the first aerial maps of a large city. Made using a biplane, this map was made on August 4, 1921 assembled using 100 aerial photographs taken at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

Detail of Fairchild map showing Penn Station, 1921.

The map shows a glimpse of New York City before the explosion of skyscrapers that was to take over the city only a few years later. A close examination of the map reveals fascinating details including buildings, trees, cars, parks, and more.

One eye catching structure, the Polo Grounds can be seen in upper Manhattan near the Harlem River. With its distinct shape, this was the site of the 1921 World Series, played by intercity rivals, the New York Giants and the New York Yankees.

Another interesting building to note is the original Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, completed only 11 years earlier in 1911, allowing train travel to the city from the south for the first time. The ornate building was torn down in 1963 and replaced by Madison Square Garden.

Aerial mapping continued to advance up to the satellite mapping available today. The ability to see a city or the world from the sky, starting with this map of New York City, altered the way humanity perceived their sense of place in the world forever.


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