Remote Sensing Through The Ages


Louis Daguerre
Louis Daguerre (1789 – 18

Remote sensing relies heavily on photography and so their histories and subsequent development are intertwined. While there were several attempts made to capture images using photography, it wasn’t until Louis Daguerre (the man with the glorious moustache on the right) reported the results from his experiments with photographic chemicals in 1839, that photography was born (Campbell & Wynne, 2011).

Once man had acquired the ability to take photographs, the next step towards remote sensing was to take an aerial photo and Gaspard-Félix Tournachon was the man to do just that! In 1858, after attaching an early camera to a tethered balloon, Nader, as he was affectionately known, captured an aerial shot somewhere in France (all his aerial photographs have been sadly lost so the exact location of the image is unknown, although many early shots from other pioneers still remain).

While it would be a stretch to refer to these early images as ‘remote sensing’, they certainly led the way for the field to be born.

We have to jump forward to WWI before aerial photography became routine and, while it was still somewhat rudimentary in method, proved extremely useful for reconnaissance and surveillance. Obtaining aerial images allowed for better informed military decisions as well as predictions regarding enemy movement (Baumann, 2014).

WWII marked a turning point in the history of RS; the use of electromagnetic radiation moved from using exclusively visible light to include both infrared and microwaves. While their existence had been known for over a century prior to the war, practicality hadn’t been obtained until this point.

Photographic reconnaissance has been our main source of intelligence in the Pacific. Its importance cannot be overemphasized.

(Admiral J. F. Turner, 1945)

Aerial photography continued to provide useful images for a variety of uses. It was notably used during the Cold War periods by both sides to provide recon of missile development and testing. This period also saw the first satellite images and it became possible to routinely gather visual information from space.

Landsat 1
Landsat 1 (Source:

Remote sensing was also used for civilian work such as to assess and identify problems in crops, as well as degradation of forested areas and coastlines. The field developed in leaps and bounds and by 1972 Landsat 1 was launched. Landsat 1 was the first of many Earth Orbiting satellites that would document land surface change on Earth (Campbell & Wynne, 2011).

As with much of the technology in the 20th Century, remote sensing and the data gathering satellites it used developed at an incredible rate. Within 60 years, the field essentially went from a man leaning over the side of a plane with a camera, to the first orbiting satellite over Earth!

So keep an eye out, who knows what could be next…?

Fun Fact: In 1976, Landsat 1 discovered a tiny uninhabited island 20km off the eastern coast of Canada. In its honour, the island was named Landsat Island!

References:, (2017), Looking at the Earth! Landsat and radar, Available at:, (Accessed: 23rd May, 2017).

Baumann, P. R. (2014), History of remote sensing, aerial photography, Available at:, (Accessed: 10th May, 2017)

Campbell, J. B. & Wynne, R. H. (2011), Introduction to remote sensing, 5th edn., New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 7.