Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Sixteen years after Orville and Wilbur Wright mastered the age-old dream of flight, a World War I army surplus biplane buzzed high above the City of Harrisburg. City residents paused in their labors, gawked at the airborne marvel, this rare phenomenon, the airplane. They could not know that, high above them, a man holding a bulky wooden camera hung precariously out of the open cockpit, taking their picture. The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” circled the state capi­tol and returned to the Dau­phin Airfield, just a bare meadow in the mountains of northern Dauphin County. On the crude airstrip, two men emerged: Walter Schaffer, the pilot, and Samuel Kuhnert, the plane’s owner, trium­phantly completing his inau­gural flight as an aerial photographer. It was May 20, 1919, and Kuhnert had just taken the first images of Pennsylvania’s capitol city from the air.

Samuel W. Kuhnert would return again and again with different pilots to the skies of Harrisburg and central Penn­sylvania towns during the next two decades photographing and offering his distinctive aerial views for sale. Through­out the process he froze in time the towns, rivers, moun­tains and valleys punctuating the Pennsylvania landscape. Kuhnert also photographed the pilots and planes of the early twentieth century as they barnstormed the serene Amer­ican countryside, in what has come to be known as the “golden age” of aviation.

Kuhnert was a rare breed of commercial photographer; an aerial photographer, he was the only one of his kind at the time in the entire Harrisburg area. He had counterparts elsewhere in the state – J. Vic­tor Dallin of Dallin’s Aerial Views in the east and the Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corporation in the west­ – which were organized com­panies operated by several individuals. But the man who called himself the “Flying Photographer” operated alone. Not only did he shoot the picture, he developed it, printed it and marketed it! He was a pioneer as well as entre­preneur.

The story of Kuhnert’s pho­tographs, how they were taken, and the man himself provide a unique glimpse into the larger life of central Penn­sylvania between the World Wars. Until recently, their story has only been appreci­ated by individuals who still remember those early days or who have a Kuhnert Aerial View tucked away in the attic. Fortunately, Kuhnert’s children generously donated his entire collection of more than six thousand negatives and prints to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission upon his death in 1978. The images will be preserved for future study by scholars.

The idea of aerial photogra­phy was not new in Kuhnert’s time. In the early days of avia­tion, aerial photography was seen as one potential benefit of the new flying contraption. In addition to rapid transport for goods and people, weather observation and war-time offensive use, the hot air bal­loon and, later, the airplane, could provide high altitude reconnaissance. The first docu­mented aerial photograph depicted a view of Boston in 1860 by Philadelphian Samuel King. During the Civil War the armies of both the North and South regularly sent men aloft in balloons to observe each other’s movements. Although maps were probably the result of these ventures, the idea to photographically record such things and events was a logical advance. By World War I, the military not only used the airplane on bombing runs and “dogfights ,” but on aerial scouting missions as well. The U.S. Signal Corps had by this time developed cameras ex­pressly for aerial use. In Penn­sylvania, the flamboyant turn-of-the-century filmmaker Lyman Howe should probably receive credit for taking the first motion picture films from the air. Always looking for new gimmicks to please an audience, Howe stunned his early motion picture fans by producing in 1912 a plane’s eye view of Wilkes-Barre!

Samuel William Kuhnert was born in Steelton, Dauphin County, in 1890 into a blue­-collar family whose ancestors emigrated from Germany. When he was four years old, his family moved to a farm in Powell’s Valley of the upper reaches of the county. The farm, “Pine Acres,” which he would later lovingly photo­graph from the air, provided a happy childhood for Sam and his many brothers and sisters. His father had married twice, siring thirteen children, ten of whom survived to adulthood. Sam, the eldest boy, dropped out of school at fifth grade, probably to assist with the farm chores. (His lack of edu­cation is evidenced by the poor hand and misspelled words on his surviving negative enve­lopes and prints.) Apparently, he did not let his relative pov­erty or abbreviated education handicap his desire to learn; early documents and images characterize him as a youth curious about the world. His interest in photography was sparked by the gift of a cam­era, and in 1905, at the age of thirteen, he took his first im­age, the house at “Pine Acres.” In 1912, he produced his first scrapbook of prints of family and friends and later served apprenticeship to L. G. Harpel, a Lebanon County photographer.

Kuhnert’s emerging interest in aviation paralleled the American public’s growing fascination in the years before the first World War. Compan­ies operated by the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and others wanted to generate interest and, therefore, reve­nue in the airplane in order to further its development. Be­ginning about 1908, they hired pilots to travel the country publicizing the airplane by staging air shows and offering rides to those who dared go up. The airplane was brought to millions of people who had never seen one, and its arrival in town was considered an event. “You saw an airplane and it was a magical, mystical, special thing,” recalled Kuhnert’s son, Robert, a re­tired Air Force major living in Ohio.

Undoubtedly, young Sam Kuhnert witnessed some of the early air shows in central Pennsylvania. The first ever in Harrisburg, sponsored by the local newspaper, the Patriot, recruited the Rex Smith fliers from College Park, Maryland. The event, a week-long extrav­aganza in September 191l, featured daredevil Paul Peck of Washington, D.C., and French flier Georges Mestach. Peck crashed his biplane the first day, but Mestach made up for it. Taking off from Paxtang Park, he awed the crowd by soaring his Morane mono­plane around the state capitol’s dome and returning safely to the park. Borrowing a friend’s plane, Peck duplicated the Frenchman’s feat, and later both stunned their audience by putting the two planes in the air simultaneously! Similar Harrisburg exhibitions were held by other companies later that year and in succeeding years. One noteworthy early flight in the upper Dauphin County area was by Walter Johnson of New York, who flew from Gratz to Millersburg on September 20, 1912, and even took time out to stop at an air show in Elizabethville.

During the early years, Sam received additional encourage­ment from his brother Walter. Also interested in aviation, Walter constructed and launched at air shows his own hot-air balloon, which he claimed at one time was the largest in the United States. The boys’ resolve and interest in aviation was not blessed by their father who thought they were wasting their time. “You better quit that silly thinking and talking,” Sam would quote the old man.

Undaunted, Kuhnert cher­ished his interest in aviation while developing other aspects of his life. He enrolled in a correspondence course in photography from the Eastman Kodak Company in Roch­ester, New York. He married and had children (for which he was not drafted into the first World War). Kuhnert and his family lived in Harrisburg, where Sam established a pho­tography studio and darkroom in their Third Street home. A fire in the laboratory in 1922 destroyed enough of the house that they had to move, this time to Camp Hill, just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. He became active in the church, often writing his own poetry and hymns and, with the advent of radio, played the mandolin on the “Reverend Rutman Radio Hour.”

About the same time he also began regularly making flights in central Pennsylvania with Walter Schaffer and other pilots, experimenting with photography from the air. He must have realized the inade­quacies of his earlier efforts after his first photographic flight of 1919. Kuhnert used a standard camera which took large format negatives. As remarkable as these first pho­tographs were, they produced prints which were too dark, taken at too severe an angle, too far away from the subject and poorly focused from the airplane’s vibrations. Sam had to find a way to steady himself and his camera, diminish the annoying glare and obtain better lenses.

Sam Kuhnert’s income from photographing weddings, class reunions, portraits and businesses supported his family and paid tuition for his aerial engineering and naviga­tion courses at Beckley Col­lege, Camp Hill. The school was destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1928, but not before Kuhnert came away with the knowledge to build, maintain and fly airplanes. He even constructed and flew his own plane, a flimsy contraption constructed of wood, canvas and bicycle wheels. He wanted to build what he called a “photo plane,” by mounting a camera in the belly of the craft so he could fly and take pic­tures at the same time. It did not have quite the power to gain and maintain altitude. “It never flew, it just hopped,” his son Bob remembered. The airplane was destroyed one day in 1927 when the contrap­tion exploded into flames just before take-off from a field near his home. Sam never ventured again into plane­-building.

In the meantime, Sam Kuhnert did perfect his aerial photography. By this time, the first cameras designed ex­pressly for aerial photography were on the market, but he apparently could not afford the several hundred dollars to buy one; he began experiment­ing with the studio cameras of the day and modifying them for aerial use. Kuhnert built at least three such cameras. (Only one of these has sur­vived, now in the collections of The State Museum.) This device consists of a wooden Graflex focal plane shutter fitted with a Bausch and Lomb 252.4mm Aero Tessar 4.5 fixed focus lens. This set-up has a hood of sheet copper bolted around it with two wooden handles on either side for gripping. The interior of the hood is painted black with a yellow film filter or ‘gel’ taped over the lens to minimize glare and haze. A lever on the hood extends from the shutter to the handle which can be triggered by the index finger. Line levels on either side and a telescopic sight on top gave assistance in framing the subject. The whole apparatus weighed fifteen and a half pounds and took five by seven inch glass or film negatives. Kuhnert also had a special leather harness modified for his use. With it, he would strap himself and his camera to the plane and hang out as far as he dared. His son described the feat: “He’d step out on the wing with his cam­era and lean out past the edge of the wing so he got none of the structure of the aircraft [in the picture]. That’s what most newsmen would be afraid to do, and anybody else for that matter … that’s what put him in his field, so he could get the pictures. And he developed this harness he had made for himself so he could connect it inside the aircraft and fasten it to his camera so if he did slip or drop anything, it would be all hanging and dangling … ”

About 1930 Sam Kuhnert was able to purchase a Folmer­-Graflex Model K-5 aerial cam­era. According to a 1929 advertisement in Aviation mag­azine, the device sold for nearly nine hundred dollars and was equipped with one of the latest conveniences for “hedgehoppers and aces”: a magazine holding a roll of film nine and a half inches by seventy-five feet, enabling the photographer to take up to one hundred shots without re­loading! Although this camera was heavier than Kuhnert’s previous equipment – it weighed forty-four pounds – it had a swivel mount which attached to the side of the plane and allowed full rotation.

Today, it is quite astonishing to think of a man wearing a bulky flight suit, over which was worn an even bulkier harness, teetering precariously on the wing of a rocking air­plane, aiming a heavy camera which held fragile glass nega­tives. But Kuhnert did it. The fruits of his dangerous effort may be seen by comparing the quality of his aerial images taken in the 1930s with those taken a decade before. The later images are larger in scale, clearer, have a greater depth of field, good contrast and are taken at more pleasing angles. That he was able to do this at all is remarkable. But even more impressive is that many images possess an extra di­mension, a certain drama. Almost all of his work was shot at oblique angles, rather than the overhead shots typi­cal of government and indus­trial aerial surveys. The result is a more artistic, three­-dimensional view of the early subjects rather than a drab, flat perspective. Taken at these slightly eccentric angles, the photographs impart a dizzi­ness which can only come from flying. With concentra­tion these images transport the viewer back to that crucial point in time, thousands of feet above the earth, when Kuhnert snapped the shutter.

The quality of Sam Kuhnert’s images were en­hanced by enlisting a good pilot. Many early pilots in the Harrisburg area flew Sam Kuhnert, but probably the best of these was John Abiuso, whom he met in 1934. Abiuso graduated from the Navy’s flying school in 1928, barn­stormed with friends across the South and earned money by teaching flying. He was also one of the first commercial pilots for Transcontinental and Western Air, which later be­came Trans-World Airlines. John Abiuso fondly remem­bered his relationship with Sam Kuhnert in a 1983 interview:

“Sam always hung around airports. That’s how I met him. Two thirds of all our work was joint ventures, well, we loved to fly – there was no revenue involved. ‘It’s a beautiful day, Sam; I’d say, ‘look at that sun – let’s take a flight; and he’d grab his cameras. So we’d take a couple of cameras up and then we’d fly along; for instance, if we saw an unusual barn he’d say, ‘Look at that, isn’t that a beautiful thing! Turn around Johnny.’ You can only photograph something interesting that you see with your own eyes. Fortunately we thought alike and I knew the best position to put him in – … Sometimes all he had to do was point; we knew pretty well where the interesting things were … When you come right down to it, it’s just a natural thing.”

Although Kuhnert usually went up and took pictures for pleasure, he did try to turn a profit from the ventures. Re­called Abiuso: “We would photograph maybe twenty or thirty colleges or estates, or whatever, and then after we developed them, we’d look at them, they’d look great, then afterwards we’d fly to the college and try to sell them. We were lucky if we got seventy-five dollars for them.” Kuhnert would enlarge his aerials, usually to eleven by fourteen inches, sometimes hand color them, and sell the prints from his studio which he opened in 1935 on Third Street in Harrisburg. Occa­sionally, he would be hired by individuals or companies to photograph their properties from the air. His variety of subjects – and philosophy­ – was summed up by one of his studio advertisements: Will go anywhere, anytime. His collec­tion of views contains most major (and quite a few smaller) towns within a few hundred miles of Harrisburg, farms, factories, the disastrous 1936 flood, the newly constructed Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940, gubernatorial inaugurations at the state capitol, a visit from Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as hundreds of others, all from the air. He sold his views to local newspapers, busi­nesses or souvenir-seekers.

The gimmick held appeal for a while, but the aerial views were never quite profitable. “If he could just pay for his gas or his plane, he was getting by,” Bob Kuhnert said. In the lean years of the Great Depression, his commercial and studio business supported his family. In addition to photographing the ubiquitous social events­ – weddings, birthdays, banquets and anniversaries – he was often hired by the local police department or coroner’s office to take morgue shots of acci­dent or murder victims, and by insurance companies to photograph automobile acci­dent sites. It was gruesome work, but work nonetheless, and he did it.

Kuhnert always hauled his camera equipment, no matter how cumbersome, to air shows or to airports to photo­graph the latest models of a plane, rare or unusual craft, and the pilots who flew them. On the ground and in the air, the daredevil barnstormers and the serious technicians can be seen going through their paces before Kuhnert’s lens. He also posed them, grinning beside their WACOs, Jennys, DeHavillands, Ryans and Fleetwings and planes of the era. Early blimps and the exotic autogiro (which looked like a helicopter but flew like a plane) were also captured for posterity. Brother Walter’s immense hot-air balloon was caught in action at Lancaster and York air shows, the crowds teeming around it. The “Winnie Mae” was photo­graphed arriving at Harrisburg (now Capitol City) Airport, piloted by Wiley Post, famous for his high altitude experi­ments. Post made the first solo round-the-world flight in the Winnie Mae, a Lockheed craft now on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Wash­ington, D.C. Other pilots, such as black flyer Hubert Julian, known as the “Black Eagle of Harlem,” and, of course, Charles Lindbergh, were photographed as well. Lindbergh passed through Harrisburg in October 1930 to publicize the inauguration of transcontinental air mail serv­ice from New York to Los Angeles. The plane carrying the mail itself, a Ford Tri­-Motor, the first all-metal air­plane, arrived two days later.

Because of gas rationing during World War II, and the general increase in expenses of flying a private plane, Kuhnert rarely went aloft for the pur­pose of taking pictures follow­ing the war’s end. He turned his full attention to studio work, often selling photo­graphic supplies to supple­ment his income. By the 1960s he was semi-retired, keeping his Third Street shop open only a few hours a day. In his later years he made it a point to celebrate his August 15 birthday by making a flight, usually with old and trusted friend John Abiuso at the controls. His last birthday flight was in 1976 at age eighty-six. Shortly afterward he developed a debilitating illness which ultimately led to his death two years later.

Sam Kuhnert was not only an observer of the early and exciting years of aviation his­tory but a full-fledged partici­pant. “His generation went from the horse and buggy to moon landings,” his son Bob aptly recalled. His aerial views, even though never profitable for him, hold tre­mendous historical value for scholars and geographers wishing to study Pennsylvania topography or town planning. The aviators who soared past his camera are long gone, but Kuhnert’s legacy is an accurate record of what those exciting and challenging days of the golden era must have been like. And, probably, Kuhnert was not even aware that he was creating such a priceless and irreplaceable photographic documentary.

Or was he?

Sam Kuhnert’s photographs keenly reflect his desire to capture what he had seen and the sheer joy he felt when flying and photographing. In the many photographs of himself preserved in the State Archives, from his 1912 scrap­book to his last birthday flight, he is smiling, always smiling. And the knowing sparkle in his eyes shows that he relished it all.


For Further Reading

Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: Aviation and Ameri­can Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washing­ton, D.C.: Smithsonian Institu­tion Press, 1983.

____. A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875-1905. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1981.

Francis, Devon. Mr. Piper and His Cubs. Ames: The Iowa State University Press, 1973.

Harris, Sherwood. The First to Fly: Aviation’s Pioneer Days. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Trimble, William F. High Fron­tier: A History of Aeronautics in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.


Linda A. Ries, former photograph editor of Pennsylvania Heri­tage, is the archivist responsible for maintaining the extensive photograph collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.


James R. Mitchell serves as curator of the Industry and Technol­ogy Department for The State Museum of Pennsylvania. His articles have appeared in various museum-related publications.