A detail from a photo in George Lawrence’s “San Francisco in Ruins” series.

Kites, weights, and a 50-pound camera: How George Lawrence captured San Francisco after the 1906 quake

When San Francisco trembled for 42 seconds on April 18, 1906, nearly two decades had passed since George Eastman introduced his first Kodak camera. In the days that followed the great earthquake, so many photographers choked the streets that a local newsman remarked: “Never since cameras were first invented has there been such a large number in use at any other place as there has been in San Francisco.”

The disaster, historians say, became the most photographed of any event up to its time. Of all the images, perhaps the most striking was captured by George Lawrence, a commercial photographer and tinkerer from Chicago.

Sensing opportunity, Lawrence hustled to San Francisco upon news of the quake, arriving nearly six weeks later. By then, days of fires had compounded the tragedy, leaving roughly 80% of the city in ruins and more than 3,000 people dead.

Lawrence set himself an ambitious goal: to capture the totality of destruction in a single image.

“San Francisco in Ruins,” by George Lawrence.
(See a larger version)

At the time, aerial photography was in its nascent stages, and Lawrence was a pioneer. Using an elaborate rig of kites and weights, he flew a 50-pound camera some 2,000 feet above the San Francisco waterfront and pointed it toward the prostrate city. To trip the shutter, he sent an electrical current from the ground along an insulated wire.

The resulting image, seared onto a massive 4-foot wide plate and titled “San Francisco in Ruins,” was a sensation, offering a crisp 160-degree panorama of one of the world’s most vibrant cities reduced to smoldering ruins.

Lawrence’s panoramas — he captured three altogether — became an invaluable part of San Francisco’s visual history. They also vindicated his bet that there was money to be made from what amounted to a prototype for the modern drone camera. People around the world paid $125 each for prints of the waterfront panorama, generating roughly $15,000 in sales. That amounts to roughy $440,000 in today’s dollars.

See a larger version of “San Francisco in Ruins.” 👉 LOC.gov

This article is from the California Sun, a newsletter that delivers must-read stories to your inbox each morning .  Sign up here.

Get your daily dose of the Golden State.