Ultimately, technology caught up with ambition around the turn of the twentieth century. Science finally had advanced to create machines that could be controlled from afar and move about on their own. The robotic age was getting closer, and robots’ link with war would become even more closely intertwined.

The first real efforts started with Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, two rival scientists and the first of what we now would call electrical engineers. While working on various ways to transmit electricity, Edison and Tesla both experimented with radio-control devices. Because of his eccentric personality and lack of a good public relations team like Edison, Tesla would not gain the same place in history as his rival, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” and died penniless.

Tesla, though, did perhaps the most remarkable work at the time with remote-control devices. He first mastered wireless communication in 1893. Five years later, he demonstrated that he could use radio signals to remotely control the movements of a motorboat, holding a demonstration at Madison Square Garden. Tesla tried to sell this first remotely operated vehicle, along with the idea of remote-controlled torpedoes, to the U.S. military, but was rejected. As Tesla recounted, “I called an official in Washington with a view of offering the information to the government and he burst out laughing upon telling him what I had accomplished.” Tesla would not be the last inventor to find out that what was technically possible mattered less than whether it was bureaucratically imaginable. Two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, had the same experience a few years later when they first tried to sell their invention of manned flight.

The foundations then were laid for remote-controlled vehicles and weapons just as the First World War began. World War I proved to be an odd, tragic mix of outmoded generalship combined with deadly new technologies. From the machine gun and radio to the airplane and tank, transformational weapons were introduced in the war, but the generals could not figure out just how to use them. Instead, they clung to nineteenth-century strategies and tactics and the conflict was characterized by brave but senseless charges back and forth across a no-man’s-land of machine guns and trenches.

With war becoming less heroic and more deadly, unmanned weapons began to gain some appeal. On land, there was the “electric dog,” a three-wheeled cart (really just a converted tricycle) designed to carry supplies up to the trenches. A precursor to laser control, it followed the lights of a lantern. More deadly was the “land torpedo,” a remotely controlled armored tractor, loaded up with one thousand pounds of explosives, designed to drive up to enemy trenches and explode. It was patented in 1917 (appearing in Popular Science magazine) and a prototype was built by Caterpillar Tractors just before the war ended. In the air, the first of what we would now call cruise missiles was the Kettering “Bug” or “aerial torpedo.” This was a tiny unmanned plane that used a preset gyroscope and barometer to automatically fly on course and then crash into a target fifty miles away. Few of these remote-controlled weapons were bought in any numbers and most remained prototypes without any effect on the fighting.

The only system to be deployed in substantial numbers was at sea. Here, the Germans protected their coast with FL-7s, electronically controlled motorboats. The unmanned boats carried three hundred pounds of explosives and were designed to be rammed into any British ships that came near the German coast. Originally, they were controlled by a driver who sat atop a fifty-foot-high tower on shore, steering through a fifty-mile-long cable that spooled out of the back of the boat. 

Soon after, the Germans shifted the operator from a tower onto a sea-plane that would fly overhead, dragging the wire. Both proved unwieldy, and in 1916 Tesla’s invention of wireless radio control, now almost two decades old, was finally deployed in warfare.

Perhaps reflecting the fact that they were outnumbered in both these wars, the Germans again proved to be more inclined to develop and use unmanned systems when fighting began again in World War II. The best known of their weapons, akin to the land torpedo, was called the Goliath. About the size of a small go-cart and having a small tank track on each side, the Goliath of 1940 was shaped almost exactly like the Talon that Foster-Miller makes over six decades later. It carried 132 pounds of explosives. Nazi soldiers could drive the Goliath by remote control into enemy tanks and bunkers. Some eight thousand Goliaths were built; most saw service as a stopgap on the Eastern Front, where German troops were outnumbered almost three to one.

In the air, the Germans were equally revolutionary, deploying the first cruise missile (the V-1), ballistic missile (V-2), and jet fighter (Me-262). The Germans were also the first to operationally use remotely piloted drones. The FX-1400, known as the “Fritz,” was a 2,300-pound bomb with four small wings, tail controls, and a rocket motor. The Fritz would drop from a German plane flying at high altitude. A controller in the plane would then guide it into the target using a joystick that steered by radio. The Fritz made a strong debut in 1943, when the Italian battleship Roma was trying to defect to the Allies. Not knowing of the Fritz, the Italian sailors saw a German bomber plane, but didn’t worry too much as it was at a distance, height, and angle from which it couldn’t drop a bomb on top of them. A Fritz launched from the bomber and then flew into the Roma, sinking it with more than a thousand sailors lost.

The Allies were behind the Germans in these technologies, but they were no less futuristic in some of the things they sought to develop. In the United States, the focus of research was on aerial weapons and actually led to another of the great “what ifs?” of recent history. In 1944, “Operation Aphrodite” was launched in Europe. The idea was to strip down bomber planes and load them up with twenty-two thousand pounds of Torpex, a new explosive discovered to be 50 percent more powerful than TNT. A human crew would fly the plane during takeoff, arm the explosives in midair, and bail out. A mothership flying nearby would then take remote control of the bomber and, using two television cameras mounted in the drone’s cockpit, steer the plane into Nazi targets that were too well protected for manned bombers to hit.

On August 12, 1944, the naval version of one of these planes, a converted B-24 bomber, was sent to take out a suspected Nazi V-3, an experimental 300-foot-long “supercannon” that supposedly could hit London from over 100 miles away (unbeknownst to the Allies, the cannon had already been knocked out of commission in a previous air raid). Before the plane even crossed the English Channel, the volatile Torpex exploded and killed the crew.

The pilot was Joseph Kennedy Jr., older brother of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth president of the United States. The two had spent much of their youth competing for the attention of their father, the powerful businessman and politician Joseph Sr. While younger brother JFK was often sickly and decidedly bookish, firstborn son Joe Jr. had been the “chosen one” of the family. He was a natural-born athlete and leader, groomed from birth to become the very first Catholic president. Indeed, it is telling that in 1940, just before war broke out, JFK was auditing classes at Stanford Business School, while Joe Jr. was serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. When the war started, Joe Jr. became a navy pilot, perhaps the most glamorous role at the time. John was initially rejected for service by the army because of his bad back. The navy relented and allowed John to join only after his father used his political influence.

When Joe Kennedy Jr. was killed in 1944, two things happened: the army ended the drone program for fear of angering the powerful Joe Sr. (setting the United States back for years in the use of remote systems), and the mantle of “chosen one” fell on JFK. When the congressional seat in Boston opened up in 1946, what had been planned for Joe Jr. was handed to JFK, who had instead been thinking of becoming a journalist. He would spend the rest of his days not only carrying the mantle of leadership, but also trying to live up to his dead brother’s carefree and playboy image.

The Aphrodite program was not the only remotely controlled weapons program that the Allies devised in World War II. The Brits, for example, developed what they darkly called “bombing without knowledge of path, place, or time” that used radio signals from afar to guide bombers in the dark. In the Pacific theater, more than 450 VB-1 Azons, a 1,000-pound radio-controlled glider bomb, were used to destroy targets in Burma, mainly bridges of the sort made famous in the movieThe Bridge over the River Kwai.

The most widely produced unmanned plane in World War II, however, was used for training rather than combat. It was called the OQ-2 Radioplane, or sometimes the “Dennymite” after its maker, Reginald Denny. Denny was a British pilot during World War I, who then moved to Hollywood to become an actor. With his dashing looks and aristocratic accent, his career took off. Over the next forty years, he would appear in 172 films. The high point was his starring role opposite Greta Garbo in 1935’s Anna Karenina, the low point perhaps his final role as “Commodore Schmidlapp” in 1966’s Batman: The Movie.

While horsing around on set, Denny became a hobbyist of radio-controlled model airplanes. He saw a business opportunity in other fans, and so in 1934 opened Reginald Denny Hobby Shops, a model plane store located on Hollywood Boulevard. As war grew closer, Denny got the idea that cheap radio-controlled planes would make perfect targets to give more realistic training to antiaircraft gunners. In 1940, he pitched the idea of the planes, which he marketed to hobbyists as the “Dennymite,” for use as a target drone. The army signed a contract for fifty-three. Then Pearl Harbor happened. Over the next five years, the army would buy another fifteen thousand drones, making the Dennymite the first mass-produced unmanned plane in history.

To build so many drones, Denny had to move his manufacturing out of Hollywood and into a plant at the Van Nuys Airport. In 1944, army photographer David Conover was sent to this factory for a magazine shoot about women contributing to the war effort. He spotted a buxom woman spraying the drones with fire retardant. It was not the most sexy of settings but he thought this woman had potential as a model and sent his photos on to a friend at a model agency. Norma Jeane Dougherty soon dyed her mousy brown hair to platinum blond and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. After the war, the Northrop company bought out Denny, meaning that the icon of the blonde bombshell and the Global Hawk drone both were born in the same place.

More advancement was made during this period with computers and other automated systems, though, than with remote-controlled ones that went out into the world on their own. The most widely used of these automatic systems was the Norden bombsight.

Carl Norden was a Dutch engineer who moved to the United States in 1904. In 1920, he developed an analog computer that could calculate the trajectory of how a bomb would fall off a plane in flight. In a plane moving faster than three hundred feet per second, the human’s reaction time was too slow to use the computer’s calculation effectively, so the system automatically released the bomb at just the right time when it was sighted on a target. Norden’s bombsight could even be linked to the plane’s autopilot, taking over the flight controls on the final bombing run.

While it was advertised as being able to “put a bomb in a pickle barrel from twenty thousand feet,” the reality was that in combat conditions, the system was a little less accurate, typically hitting targets within one hundred to one thousand feet. Even so, the Norden was far more accurate than anything before it, and was used in all the U.S.’s heavy bombers during World War II. The device was considered so valuable that it was taken out of the plane and put in a safe after each mission. If their plane was about to crash, the crew was to shoot the bombsight with a thermite gun that would melt the computer.

The cost of the Norden program was $1.5 billion, almost the same as the Manhattan Project to make the first atomic bomb. Like many of the inventors, though, the “cranky” and “irascible” Norden was a bit of an oddball and never profited to the extent he might have. He didn’t like how the U.S. Army Air Corps had treated him when he had tried to sell them unmanned planes during World War I. So to get back, he sold his sight to the army’s greatest nemesis, not the Japanese or the Germans, but the U.S. Navy, for the grand price of one dollar. Throughout World War II, then, the U.S. Army had to buy its bomber sights from the U.S. Navy.

By the end of the war, the early B-17 and B-24 planes that Norden had equipped were being replaced by the far more sophisticated B-29 Superfortress. Besides the automated bombsight, the B-29 was the first plane to have a computer-controlled firing system, made up of twelve .50-caliber machine guns mounted in electric turrets, all remotely fired using an analog computer called the “Black Box.” It was a B-29, the Enola Gay, that would use a Norden bombsight to drop the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.

The real breakthrough was in computers that stayed off the battlefield. The first that used programming as we now understand it was Colossus, built at the top-secret codebreakers’ lab at Bletchley Park, England. Weighing a ton, Colossus had fifteen hundred electronic valves to crank out the complex mathematics needed to break the Enigma code used by the Germans.

Colossus, however, used physical switches to store data, so the first truly electronic computer was ENIAC, the Electric Numerical Integrator and Computer. Built at the University of Pennsylvania in 1944, it weighed twenty-seven tons and took up eighteen hundred square feet of floor space. While it was an unwieldy system that required the wires to be reset for each different problem, ENIAC could crunch out equations in thirty seconds that took a human engineer with a slide rule more than twenty hours. It was put to work on everything from shell trajectories to the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1951, the first commercial version was released, and it was soon put to use at such things as predicting election results. Officially, it was termed the UNIVAC, but the media called it the “Giant Electronic Brain.”

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