German engineer who, in 1906, successfully took aerial photographs of the ground
by attaching cameras to a black powder rocket,
thereby creating the first instrumented sounding rocket. His 1912-model rocket
carried a 20- by 25-cm photographic plate stabilized by a gyroscope. This method
of reconnaissance was discontinued, however, upon the advent of airplanes.
Alfred Maul, a Dresden civil engineer, patented a photographic rocket in 1903. He was not the first to patent
such a device, French pyrotechnist Amédée Denisse claimed to have built a photo reconnaissance rocket in 1888, and
Alfred Nobel (famous for the invention of dynamite and the endowment of the Nobel Prizes) designed a camera rocket that
may have flown shortly after his death in l896, but Alfred Maul´s invention was the first known to see testing and use.
Maul began serious work on his camera rocket system in 1901. The ultimate goal of his invention was to provide aerial reconnaissance for the Army.
He argued the superiority of rockets over balloon-based observers: a rocket could be prepared for launch quickly,
spent only a few seconds exposed to ground fire, and exposed its operators to relatively little risk. But the rocket-lofted
camera posed problems, including stability, pointing, ruggedness, recovery, and efficiency of the rocket propulsion.
For ll years, Alfred Maul built progressively larger rockets, and one by one he solved the problems of rocket
photography. Fins attached to a long guide stick insured aerodynamic stability, while a gyroscope maintained the
pointing of the camera (Maul patented this innovation in 1906). Maul developed a clever parachute recovery system to
insure safe landing of the camera and its photographic plate. He selected commercial rockets for propulsion.
By 1912, under the sponsorship of the Saxon Army, Maul had produced a fully functional system. In operation,
the 400 kg (880 lb), 7.5 meter (25 ft) tall launcher was wheeled into position for launch, taking into account the exact
direction to be photographed. The rocket was then loaded into the launcher. At the far end of a 200 meter (660 ft) umbilical
cable, a man cranked a generator to send an electrical pulse to drop a weight from the launcher. The weight pulled a cord
wrapped around the gyroscope axis, setting it spinning. A second crank of the generator produced the current to ignite a
pair of 80 mm (3.lS") diameter sea rescue rocket motors.
In eight seconds, the 42 kg (92 lb) rocket shot to an altitude of 800 meters (2,600 ft). As the rocket neared apogee,
an electro-pneumatic trigger fired the camera. The rocket remained in a vertical orientation to this point; the camera
pointed downward within the nose cone to insure a view of the ground. Azimuth pointing was maintained by the gyroscope.
The rocket then ejected the nose cone and parachute. A 10-meter (33 ft) cord connected the upper and lower sections.
A minute later, the lower portion of the rocket, including the gyroscope, rocket motors, and guide stick touched down.
Relieved of the weight of those components, the parachute brought the fragile camera and plate down gently.
Typically, the apparatus drifted 100 to 300 meters (300-1000 ft) from the launch site. Within a few minutes the
camera could be recovered and the plates developed. Some of these photos still exist, showing clear bird´s-eye views of
villages near the Saxon Anny range at Konigsbriik.
Maul´s invention was battle tested in the Turkish-Bulgarian War of 1912-1913. Anticipating today´s
reconnaissance satellites, it produced clear photographs of Turkish emplacements for the German-allied Bulgarian Army.
There is no evidence that the camera rocket was used in World War I. During that war, the airplane rendered the
photo-rocket obsolete. An airplane could carry a much heavier camera over far more ground quickly and smoothly. It
would not be until after World War II that a rocket could boost instruments of any kind, whether a camera, meteorological
instrument, or astronomical instrument, higher than an aircraft or balloon.
Maul suggested that rockets might be used for meteorological measurements, but it is unlikely that he could
have dreamed that by the end of the century, rocket-launched cameras would retum photographs from the farthest reaches of
the solar system.
While it is not certain that Alfred Maul was the first to successfully launch a camera
aboard a rocket, the claims of his predecessors have not been confirmed.
Maul´s work was, on the other hand, well documented. Components of one of his
rockets still exist in the Deutches Museum in Munich.