When Was Thermal Imagining Invented? 

Like most technologies, thermal imaging got its start with an interest by the military in exploring ways to gain an advantage over potential enemies. There is no question that being able to see a target clearly that is obscured or hiding in the dark of night is a big advantage, both for defense as well as for pre-emptive attacking. And, if one can discern additional information about a target from temperature changes, it gives military planners additional resources by which to make decisions and stay ahead of an enemy as well. This was the goal of the military’s exploration into thermal imaging. 

Needing to See the Target Faster and Sooner

Taking a concept based on the principles of heat being an emissive change to the air around a source as well as the fact that there are other light spectrums than just what the naked eye can see, the military supported research that ultimately produced the first thermal cameras during the 1950s. No surprise, the initial models were big, clunky, and cost an amazing amount of money to produce. While they were not practical by any means in the field, they did work and produced rudimentary thermal images. From that starting point, additional developments continued until finally, the military had a thermal camera that was both functional as well as effective. 

Unlike the initial mechanical beasts first produced, which had to be cooled down via barrels of liquid nitrogen, the later camera models were far more practical. They were usable and could be carried by an average person, they began to incorporate computerized processing, and the optics were vastly improved along with the temperature sensors inside. 

Not surprisingly, a significant amount of early research, archiving and reference work on thermal imaging focused on its application in a military setting. Features, settings, baseline standards, and manufacturing all responded to questions and demands for military usage, primarily around target-spotting, identification and differentiation of targets, and the illumination of targets against obscuring background. Because the military’s interests were driven by either surveillance or pre-emptive attack targeting, little was done with thermal imaging for decades in terms of its later uses in other industries. 

The Transition to the Rest of the World in Terms of Users

As late as the middle of the 1990s, thermal cameras still needed to utilize some kind of a coolant mechanism to operate. The device and related design had not yet been developed where operational protection was not needed. A lot of the issues had to do with the evolution of the required electronics. Eventually, however, newer thermal imaging tools began to be created that didn’t require cooling at all. 

Eventually, the thermal camera design migrated from the confidential and secret files of the military to commercial use. That opened the door for thermal imaging to migrate to the public and be applied in civilian usage instead. A good number of early applications went to security and law enforcement, a natural transition from military to para-military functions. However, soon enough, thermal imaging also found a viable home with firefighting, particularly municipal emergency fire response. Today, the same technology is standard for making sure a structure fire has been completely put out instead of coming back from hidden embers. Thermal imaging has also been heavily used by border patrol units and surveillance, catching suspects in the dark based on their body heat difference from their surroundings. Hunters have also tried the same technology for wild game sport, with varying degrees of success. Researchers have fared better in many cases by simply observing wildlife biology versus trying to kill it.

Going Beyond Just Surveillance or Identification

Later designs integrated thermal imaging with robotic assemblies, helping the machines identify when and where to do activities based on seeing temperature changes. The logic is simple; the robot “sees” a given thermal change or reading, and its programming then follows a script of what to do next based on the temperature trigger. A good number of climate systems, facility systems, and environmental controls use similar designs. And even some of the most common motion detectors and house alarm systems now use similar technology to sense heat changes caused by intruders. 

Thermal imaging is also heavily used in modern medicine today. It can be applied in medical diagnostics as well as research and treatment. By being able to see temperature changes in soft tissue, doctors are able to apply additional treatments where before they might have had to guess about the efficacy of their work. In its most recent health application, thermal imaging has been applied in major public centers and facilities to help identify those with a potential COVID pandemic risk as their body temperature will already show a deviation from normal healthy temperature levels. In many cases, those identified have no idea they are already sick, but their elevated body temperature is caught on camera and quickly flagged as a risk.

Industrial Purpose and Benefit For Your Needs

Connors Industrial continues to be one of the leading providers of thermal imaging systems, equipment, installation, training, and field service monitoring. If your business is considering thermal imaging or needs to upgrade an existing system and bring in better technology, Connors Industrial is your answer to doing things right the first time. Their specialized technicians and teams have some of the most advanced training in thermal imaging for industrial settings and are constantly improving as the technology continues to improve. To find out more, email or call today!

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