Talbert Abrams—The Father of Aerial Photogrammetry

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Talbert "Ted" Abrams devoted nearly his entire life to aviation and photogrammetry. His many accomplishments paved the way for modern aerial mapping. Ted Abrams was only a year old when the Wright brothers began their experiments in flight, but he would later become one of their biggest followers. Born on August 17, 1895, Abrams was raised on a farm near the village of Tekonsha, Michigan, where he developed a vivid imagination and a passion for creating things. When he was 8 years old, his father’s enthusiastic voice stating, "The Wright boys had flown a powered aircraft on a beach in North Carolina", immediately caught his attention. From that moment forward, Ted Abrams wanted to fly and be directly involved in aviation.

The work ethic that Abrams developed on the family farm helped form the technical background that he would later use to become an aviation pioneer. At age 18, he moved to Detroit where he was employed at various airports. It is believed that Abrams also briefly worked for the Benoist Aircraft Company as a mechanic in Sandusky, Ohio. Later, he secured a job at the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in Buffalo, New York. His initial duties at Curtiss were the mundane tasks of grinding engine valves and assisting in the drafting room, however, both would later prove highly beneficial for his personal endeavors. Abrams learned to fly at the Curtiss Aviation School in 1916. His pilot’s license was signed by Orville Wright.

At the onset of the American involvement in WWI, Abrams joined the Aviation Section of the U. S. Marines and was assigned patrol duty in the Caribbean. One task of his squadron was to take aerial photographs from the cockpit to provide data for mapping areas prior to combat to determine the movement of enemy troops, and afterwards to make post-battle assessments. After Abram’s military service, he became one of the nation’s first air mail pilots in 1920. The rigorous demands of flying in extreme weather conditions fine tuned his expertise and knowledge of the use of aircraft instruments as opposed to solely relying on visual flying. As an entrepreneur, Abrams began taking aerial photographs to fulfill the country’s growing demand for aerial images. His first aircraft was a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny", a surplus WWI military training plane made available for postwar civil aviation.

In 1922, Abrams established ABC (Always Be Careful) Airline Corporation in Lansing, Michigan. A Standard J-1 biplane equipped with a homemade camera became his first photogrammetry aircraft. This aircraft was adversely known for its high vibration and unreliable four-cylinder engine, but it provided the inception for Abrams career in aerial photography.

In 1923, Abrams and his wife Leota, also a pilot, renamed their company the Abrams Aerial Survey Company. The initial years of business were slow as the struggling company sought its niche and identity in a new, but rapidly growing industry. The speculation that a thriving business could be built on taking aerial photographs for mapping purposes quickly proved accurate. The company’s first aerial mapping contract came in 1925 when the Michigan State Highway Department hired Abrams to utilize his cameras in flight. Before long, the Abrams were producing maps for highway design and construction projects in other states. These early government contracts provided the backbone of the business and allowed it to prosper.

Initially, the company used various modified conventional aircraft to accommodate the bottom mounted aerial cameras. However, the single front engine aircraft were typically not ideal for stable photographic platforms. Oil leaking from an engine invariably found its way to the camera lens. The noise and vibration made communication and coordination in the cockpit difficult. Although these aircraft ultimately accomplished the work, Abrams envisioned that an aircraft designed specifically for use in aerial photography could propel his business to an even greater level.

In 1937, Abrams developed the P-1 Explorer, the first aircraft exclusively designed for aerial photography. That same year, he established Abrams Aircraft Corporation and the following year, he established the Abrams Instrument Corporation which manufactured camera parts for the government. The timing of the new company coincided with the United States involvement in WWII when the need for photo reconnaissance was critical. The military considered the P-1 Explorer too vulnerable for combat photogrammetry so cameras were mounted on faster fighter planes. Always adjusting to the demands and opportunities of the time, Abrams promptly developed technology to fit the military’s needs. Soon, all branches of the military were utilizing his developments. Admiral William Halsey, commander of the Navy’s Pacific fleet, once told Abrams that every ship and plane in the Pacific were using maps based upon survey information computed by Abrams’ personnel. To meet the military’s demands for qualified photogrammetry experts, Abrams developed the Abrams School of Aerial Surveying and Photo Interpretation to teach photogrammetric engineering to military students.

Following WWII, the Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation prospered and became one of the nation’s largest and busiest aerial mapping companies. In 1961, Abrams sold his company to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and entered semi-retirement, but the businessman remained active in the field of aviation. Abrams estimated his company mapped 1,720 American cities and at least 515 American counties. Additionally, the company mapped at least 48,000 miles of utility lines and 5,800 miles of American highways. Abrams noted that mapping contracts took his company into 96 different countries. These many accomplishments resulted in Abrams’ name, "The Father of Aerial Photography".

It has been said that Abrams accomplished more in his lifetime than most could accomplish in eight. He held numerous patents and is credited with inventing many items such as a contour finder, a 16mm combat gun camera, anti-fogging devises for gun sights, radar cameras, torpedo assessing equipment, and electronic programmers for rockets and missiles. His researchers developed an Inertial Guidance System similar to that used in the Apollo Space program’s moon rover. Many surveyors and civil engineers will remember Abram’s most widely used invention which was a folding stereoscopic instrument resembling a pair of reading glasses. Abram confidently boasted that the researchers at his instrument company could develop anything, but cost was the prohibitive factor in getting on the market.

Ted and Leota Abrams were generous philanthropists and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars toward programs involved in technical research. In 1962, the couple created the Abrams Foundation to fund engineering scholarships. That same year, they provided a large donation to create the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. Ted Abrams received numerous awards and was inducted into many organizations. He died in Lansing, Michigan, on August 26, 1990, at the age of 95. The Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation was acquired by Aerocon Photogrammetric Services, Inc., in 2003. The Talbert Abrams Award was established in his honor and is presented by the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS). The award encourages the authorship and recording of current, historical, engineering, and scientific developments in photogrammetry.

Abrams P-1 Explorer
The Abrams P-1 Explorer was built in Marshall, Michigan, and made its inaugural flight on November 20, 1937, from Brooks Field in Marshall. The application for a patent from the United States Patent Office was filed on February 16, 1938, and Abrams obtaining the design patent on March 7, 1939.

The airplane had a 36 ft. – 8 in. delta type wingspan which provided for a more stable flight and allowed better side vision. The rear mounted engine was originally 330 hp with a two-bladed propeller. Abrams later increased this engine to 450 hp and a three-bladed propeller. The front of the plane was constructed of a clear nose that was developed by the German company of Rohm and Haas. The fronts of many aircraft, particularly the bombers used on both sides in WWII, were modelled after the Abrams design. The crew of the P-1 Explorer consisted of the pilot and one passenger. The height was 6 ft.-4 in. and the length was 26 ft.-6 in. The empty weight was 2,100 lbs. with a maximum takeoff weight of 3,400 lbs. The maximum speed while at 10,000 feet was 200 mph with a cruising speed of 175 mph at the same altitude. The aircraft had a twin tail boom and tricycle landing gear and the range was 1,400 miles.

The aircraft number was X19897 and only one plane was ever built. Abrams had envisioned a pressurized version which he named the PC-4, but it never went into production. A special camera developed by the Abrams Instrument Corporation known as the C-3 could produce 650 photos per flight on the 9 x 9 inch size. The P-1 Explorer was not widely known outside the mapping industry; however, it did appear in the Sunday, February 16, 1941, comic strip "Smilin’ Jack".

The final flight for the P-1 Explorer came in 1948, so its short life lasted just over one decade. It was donated to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Students at community colleges made at least two attempts to restore portions of the aircraft, but neither succeeded in full restoration, so the aircraft was returned to the museum. As of September 2015, the Abrams P-1 Explorer is stored at the Smithsonian’s aircraft restoration building known as the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland. Several recent attempts to prioritize the restoration of the Abrams P-1 Explorer have thus far been unsuccessful. The Smithsonian Museum remains committed to safeguarding this historic aircraft, so someday it might be restored to its original condition.

This YouTube webpage shows the Abrams P-1 Explorer in flight: youtube.com/watch?v=gsaAeLaNr60

Jerry Penry is a licensed land surveyor in Nebraska and South Dakota. He is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

A 7.755Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Jerry Penry, PS

Jerry Penry has been surveying for 34 years, is licensed in Nebraska and South Dakota, and has been employed with Lancaster County Engineering for 21 years. He is also serving his second term on the Board for the Professional Surveyors Association of Nebraska.