One-hundred and fifty years ago today, on October 13, 1860, James Wallace Black shot the earliest still-existing aerial photograph in the U.S. He took the picture from a hot air balloon suspended above Boston Common, and the result, titled "Boston as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It," is truly beautiful. The photo is part of the archive at the venerable Boston Public Library, along with other important historical images of the Boston area, and is particularly significant because most of the area visible in the photo was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1872.

James Wallace Black, Balloon View of Boston, 1860.
From the collections of the Boston Public Library, Print Department, Boston Pictorial Archive.

Flash forward 150 years: Aerial imagery is widely available and used in countless professions, from archaeology to conceptual art. The folks who created Google Earth devised a way to stitch aerial and satellite imagery together into a seamless, searchable map of the world and make it available to anyone with a computer. On top of that basemap of imagery, Google Earth users have contributed to the creation of a 3D, photo-realistic virtual world by using tools like Google Building Maker, which makes it easy for anyone to use aerial imagery to model 3D buildings for display in Google Earth.

We at Google owe James Wallace Black a debt of gratitude; without his early experimentation with aerial imagery, Google Earth may never have come to be.

In a happy coincidence, October 13 is also the first anniversary of Building Maker, and we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate the contributions of a dedicated community of 3D modelers in the 101 cities around the world where Building Maker is available. Here’s a look at two of our top modelers and their creations:

Peter Sih (aka PeterX), lives in San Jose, Calif., but has created models all over the world. He tells us: “Modeling with Building Maker you get almost instant gratification. I learn a lot by modeling places I don't know as well as places I know well. Modeling for GE ties together my lifelong fascination with geography, architecture, travel, photography and computers."

Pavilhão Carlos Lopes - Lisbon, Portugal

Grant Firl (aka Grant F) lives in Fort Collins, Colo., but concentrates most of his modeling efforts on Albuquerque, N.M. He tells us: “I choose to model with 3D Building Maker for many reasons. Principally, I think that the 3D buildings layer is a very worthwhile tool and I view it as both a privilege and a kind of duty to help fill in content. Secondly, it is both fun and rewarding to create models of physical buildings, especially given the opportunity to share them to Google's users for their use and enjoyment. Thirdly, the 3D buildings layer provides a unique way to preserve and share the hard work and inspiration of actual builders and architects.”

Albuquerque Plaza - Albuquerque, N.M.

If you haven’t tried Building Maker yet, it’s very easy and fun. You pick a building and construct a model of it using aerial photos and simple 3D shapes—both of which we provide. When you're done, we take a look at your model. If it looks right, and if a better model doesn't already exist, we add it to the 3D Buildings layer in Google Earth. You can make a whole building in a few minutes.

Technology has come a long way since James Wallace Black took his photo of Boston, and glass-plate-negative box cameras in hot air balloons have given way to airplanes with mounted camera arrays. But what hasn’t changed is how technology gives us new ways to look at out world. Check out Google Building Maker and build the picture of your world.