Tesla, Hollywood, and Inventing the Drone
Drones. Whether raining down death and destruction on the battlefield, capturing sweet snowboarding and mountain bike moves for YouTube, helping farmers inspect their fields, or driving aviation authorities mad by wandering into controlled airspace, drones seem to be just about everywhere these days. Using the latest in remote control and automatic guidance technology, drones – more properly known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs – are able to perform tasks that are otherwise too dangerous, exhausting, or expensive for manned aircraft. But whether you think drones are a boon or a menace to society, you have a surprising institution to thank for their existence: none other than that greatest of all dream machines: Hollywood. This is the surprising story of how Tinseltown led to the rise of the drone – and how drones gave us one of the silver screen’s most enduring legends.
The first public demonstration of a remotely-controlled vehicle took place in 1898 when inventor extraordinaire – and internet heartthrob – Nikola Tesla stunned onlookers at the Madison Square Garden Electrical Exhibition by piloting a small electrically-powered boat in a tank of water using only invisible radio waves. Demonstrating the remarkable foresight for which he was famous, Tesla predicted that remote-controlled boats, submarines, torpedoes, and even aircraft would one day play a key role in warfare – though, like many inventors before and since, he incorrectly assumed that such terrible weapons would eventually make war obsolete. However, it would be another 20 years before Tesla’s predictions would begin to be realized.
The first aerial “drone” as we know appeared near the end of the First World War, the brainchild of one of the great unsung aviation pioneers: Elmer Sperry. Born in 1860, Sperry was a prolific inventor, developing, among other things, self-propelled mining equipment that greatly improved the efficiency of coal extraction. After becoming violently seasick on a transatlantic voyage in 1898, Sperry began investigating the use of large gyroscopes to mitigate the effect of waves on a ship’s hull. Though the stabilization system was never implemented due to its high cost, this work led directly to the development of Sperry’s most important invention: the gyrocompass. Magnetic compasses aboard large ships had always been unreliable due to interference from the ship’s steel hull, variations in the earth’s magnetic field, and other factors. By operating independently of magnetic fields, the gyrocompass allowed for accurate navigation over large distances and proved highly successful, being installed aboard the warships of nearly every seagoing nation by the outbreak of the First World War. Sperry later developed a lightweight version that could be installed in an aircraft, revolutionizing aerial navigation. In 1914, Sperry and his son Lawrence developed a system which used two gyroscopes and a series of electrical servos to stabilize an aircraft in roll and yaw. First demonstrated in June of that year before stunned judges from the Aero Club of France, the Sperry’s “no-hands” flying system was the world’s first effective autopilot. While intended to improve navigation and reduce pilot fatigue on long-duration flights, the Sperrys immediately recognized its potential to create pilotless aircraft. Thus, in 1916 the Sperrys joined forces with fellow inventor Peter Hewitt to create the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane.
The ancestor of modern cruise missiles, the Hewitt-Sperry was a small pilotless aircraft designed to be launched from a ship by a steam catapult. A pair of gyroscopes linked to the rudder and ailerons kept the vehicle on course towards its target, while an aneroid barometer maintained its altitude. At a pre-set range, the aircraft would automatically dive onto its target or release a load of bombs. While the U.S. Navy showered some interest in the system, it declined to further pursue the project. However, after the United States entered the First World War in 1917, the Sperrys succeeded in convincing the Navy to reevaluate their “aerial torpedo” for use against German U-boats. But while testing revealed that the weapon was too inaccurate for use against ships at sea, the Navy realized the concept might just work over land. And so in November 1917 the U.S. Army assembled a team to develop its own aerial torpedo, which was given the absurdly American codename of Project Liberty Eagle.
The Army’s team was a veritable who’s-who of contemporary inventors, and included the likes of Orville Wright, Henry Ford, and Thomas Midgely – the infamous creator of leaded gasoline and the ozone-destroying refrigerant Freon. And heading this dream team was a now-forgotten but equally prolific inventor named Charles Kettering, perhaps best-known for developing the electric automobile starter motor. The team’s task was to develop an inexpensive unmanned aircraft which could travel at least 60 kilometres and deliver 100 kilograms of explosives onto an enemy target. Dubbed the “Kettering Bug,” the weapon they came up with resembled a conventional biplane with a length of 3.8 metres and a wingspan of 4.5 metres powered by a 40-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. To minimize cost, the wings and fuselage were made of wood covered in cardboard and papier-mâché while the engine, produced by Ford, was optimized for mass-production and cost only $40. In total, each Bug cost only $400, could cruise at 80 kilometres per hour, and weighed 240 kilograms – including 90 kilograms of explosives. The weapon was designed to be launched from a small catapult, whereupon the Sperrys’ gyroscope and barometer system would guide it to its target. Prior to launch, the operators would determine how many engine revolutions it would take for the Bug to reach its target, and program this into an onboard odometer. When that number was reached, the engine would automatically shut off and the wings would detach, allowing the explosive-laden fuselage to plummet towards its target.
The complexity of the Kettering Bug meant that development was slow, with the first test flight not taking place until September 14, 1918. It was an inauspicious start; after flying only 100 metres, the Bug experienced engine trouble and crashed to the ground. The next test on October 2 was even less successful, with the Bug suddenly pulling up, stalling, and crashing immediately after launch. Further tests were more successful, though by this time the First World War had already ended. Nonetheless, testing continued into the 1920s, with 45 Kettering Bugs being built in total. However, the technology of the time was inadequate to make the Bug a reliable and effective weapon of war, and the project was eventually abandoned.
Meanwhile, the first practical advances in military UAV technology were being made across the Atlantic. Starting in 1917, the British Royal Flying Corps and de Havilland aircraft company began developing a series of experimental radio-controlled aircraft using a control system invented by RFC engineer Archibald Low. On March 21, 1917, one of these aircraft, codenamed the “Aerial Target” or AT, became the first powered, unmanned aircraft to fly under radio control. The RFC hoped to develop the AT into an aerial torpedo capable of delivering explosives onto a target with pinpoint accuracy, the War ended before the system could see combat. Nonetheless, de Havilland carried on its radio-control research into the 1920s and 30s, though by this time the goal had shifted from producing weapons to producing targets. In the interwar years, trainee fighter pilots practiced aerial gunnery by shooting at long target banners or drogues towed behind another aircraft. This system had numerous disadvantages. For one thing, the towplane and drogue flew relatively slowly and in a straight line, making them a poor representation of an enemy aircraft. The attacking fighter pilots also could not tell whether they had hit the target until the towplane had landed, while – most concerning of all – the crew of the towplane were vulnerable to being hit by stray gunfire. Thus, in 1935, de Havilland introduced the DH.82 Queen Bee, a radio-controlled target based on the Tiger Moth training aircraft. While the aircraft’s front cockpit and controls were retained to allow for manned test flights and ferrying between airfields, the rear cockpit was closed off and fitted with radio control equipment. The servos that transmitted radio commands to the control surfaces were powered by air, supplied by a small propeller-powered pump mounted to the side of the fuselage. Interestingly, it is the Queen Bee which originated the modern term “drone” for unmanned aircraft. Just as male bees or drones mate once with the Queen before dying, target drones like the Queen Bee were designed to be used once before being blown out of the sky. Produced in both land and sea-based variants, the Queen Bee was highly successful, with over 400 being built before the outbreak of the Second World War. Several other aircraft, including the Fairey III, Airspeed Wasp, and Miles Martinet, would also be converted into target drones until 1952, when the Royal Air Force adopted the GAF Jindivik, a purpose-built jet-powered target drone developed by Australia’s Government Air Factories.
But while the British pioneered the use of target drones, it was the Americans who would first produce and use them on a massive scale. Enter the Hollywood connection.
Our story begins in the mid-1930s with a British film actor named Reginald Denny. While largely forgotten today, in his day Denny was a prolific actor, appearing in more than 200 films and television episodes over his early 50-year career. Born in 1891 into an acting family, Denny began acting onstage at the age of 6 and appeared in his first silent film in 1912. He was also an amateur boxing champion. On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Denny suspended his acting career to join the Royal Flying Corps, becoming an observer and air gunner in a Home Defense Night Fighter Squadron. Denny was wounded by friendly fire during a training exercise and spent several months in hospital. While he recovered sufficiently to complete his flight training, the War ended before he could see action.
After the war, Denny moved to California, where he flew with the “13 Black Cats” stunt flying troupe and continued to act in silent films. In the late 1920s, the advent of talking pictures caused a shift in Denny’s career. Due to his English accent and advancing age, he became increasingly in demand for supporting character roles, and was often cast as the quintessential English gentleman or military officer. It is also during this period that Denny discovered a new obsession. Sometime in the early 1930s, Denny agreed to help a neighbour’s son fly a model aircraft. When the model crashed, Denny set about building a new one. He soon became hooked, and in 1934 he opened a hobby shop in Los Angeles, selling flying model aircraft of his own design under the brand name “Denny Plane.” These aircraft were powered by miniature “Dennymite”-brand gasoline engines, developed by California Institute of Technology graduate Walter Righter and considered the very best in the field.
Soon after, Denny learned of the problems the U.S. Army Air Corps was having training its fighter pilots in aerial gunnery. Not only was the traditional target drogue method inaccurate and dangerous to the towplane crews, but it cost nearest $300 per flight to tow a target – a lot of money in the cash-strapped 1930s. Realizing that one of his Dennyplane flying models would make a more realistic – and cheaper – target, in 1936 Denny, along with financier Paul Whittier, founded the Radioplane Company and began developing a target drone to present to the Army.
Radioplane’s first prototype, the RP-1, had a wingspan of 4 metres, was powered by a 3 horsepower 2-cylinder Righter engine, and featured radio control gear developed by inventor Kenneth Case. In February 1938, Denny demonstrated the RP-1 for the Army, who were impressed enough to greenlight further development. Denny continued to refine the design, and in May 1939 his fourth prototype – imaginatively dubbed the RP-4 – was officially adopted by the Army under the designation OQ-1. The OQ-1 would remain in service until 1941, when it was replaced the OQ-2, which featured a more powerful 7 horsepower engine, twin counter-rotating propellers, a higher top speed of 136 kilometres per hour, and a parachute for recovery at the end of its mission. In addition to the Army Air Force, the OQ-2 was also used by the U.S. Navy under the designation TDD-1 for “Target Drone, Denny.” Finally, in 1943, Radioplane introduced its most successful model yet: the OQ-3, which was cheaper and even faster than predecessor, with a top speed of 163 kilometres per hour. While this was still far slower than most contemporary fighter aircraft, the OQ-3’s small size made it appear faster, making it difficult for fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners to hit. In total Radioplane would build 9,403 OQ-3s and 14,891 drones of all kinds during the War. Wartime demand turned the fledgling company into a major defence contractor almost overnight, with a 6,500 square-metre factory in Van Nuys, California capable of turning out 50 drones per day.
After the war, Reginald Denny supervised the conversion of four Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters into radio-controlled drones. These drones, launched from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Shangri-la, were used to penetrate and collect samples from the radioactive mushroom cloud during the 1946 Operation Crossroads atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll. But with wartime demand for target drones rapidly dwindling, in 1948 Denny sold his stake in the Radioplane company and returned to acting, making his final film appearance as Commodore Schmidlapp in 1966’s Batman: the Movie. Reginald Denny died of a stroke at the age of 75 on June 16, 1967, and was buried at Forest Lawn – Los Angeles Hills Cemetery.
Meanwhile, the company Denny founded continued to prosper. Shortly after the war, the Radioplane company introduced its most successful product: the OQ-19 Shelduck, also known as the Basic Training Target or BTT. Four metres long and with a wingspan of 3.5 metres, the OQ-19 was powered by a 72 horsepower four-cylinder engine and had a top speed of 324 kilometres per hour. Launched using a bungee-powered catapult or a small solid-rocket booster, it was guided by radio from the ground and returned to earth using a parachute. Though like earlier Radioplane drones the OQ-19 was designed to be expendable, in practice it was usually used to tow a traditional target drone, allowing the same drone to be reused multiple time. When used to train the crews of radar-guided antiaircraft guns, the drone could be fitted with wingtip radar reflectors to give it the radar cross-section of a larger aircraft. Over 63,000 OQ-19s were built, being used by multiple counties worldwide well into the 1980s. However, in 1952 the Radioplane Company was acquired by the Northrop Corporation, becoming the Radioplane Division and later the Ventura Division. Northrop, which merged with Grumman in 1994, continues to produce drones to this day, including the highly-successful RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance UAV.
Radioplane was certainly not the first or only group to produce unmanned aerial vehicles during the War. In 1944, the U.S. Army Air Force launched Operation Aphrodite, an attempt to use radio-controlled, explosives-laden B-17 bombers to destroy German secret weapons installations on the French Coast. The operation was unsuccessful, with one notable accident resulting in the death of Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Jr, elder brother of future U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Infamously, the Germans also deployed the V-1 flying bomb, whose control and guidance system was remarkably similar to the 1910s-era Kettering Bug, while both sides developed a variety of remote-controlled rocket and glide bombs for use against shipping and precision targets, including the German Henschel Hs-293 and Fritz X and the American Azon and Razon. However, Radioplane and its founder Reginald Denny were the first to turn military drones into a viable, large-scale industry.
As a coda of sorts to this story, just as Hollywood gave birth to the drone, the drone in turn gave birth to one of Hollywood’s greatest legends. In June 1944, Sargent David Conover, a photographer and Public Relations Officer with the U.S. Army’s 1st Motion Picture Unit, was sent to the Radioplane factory in Van Nuys to shoot morale-boosting pictures of female war production workers. While touring the factory, Conover came across a 19-year old woman assembling engines for OQ-3 target drones. Struck by her beauty, Conover arranged for the woman to book a modelling audition. In August 1945, she was hired by the Blue Book Model Agency, and the rest is history. That woman’s name was Norma Jeane Dougherty; you may know her better as Marilyn Monroe.
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Guttman, Robert, Hollywood and Drones: the Forgotten Connection, History Net, June 23, 2017, https://www.historynet.com/drones-hollywood-connection/
Beckett, Jesse, The Kettering Bug: America’s First Foray Into Unmanned Drone Technology Started During WWI, War History Online, October 6, 2021, https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/kettering-bug-first-unmanned-drone-technology.html
Holzwarth, Larry, The Story of the Kettering Bug, the World’s First Aerial Drone, March 4, 2020, https://historycollection.com/the-story-of-the-kettering-bug-the-worlds-first-aerial-drone/
Turi, J, Tesla’s Toy Boat: a Drone Before its Time, Engadget, January 19, 2014, https://www.engadget.com/2014-01-19-nikola-teslas-remote-control-boat.html
Braithwaite, Robin, The Queen of Bees, Light Aviation Magazine, June 2012, http://www.lightaircraftassociation.co.uk/2012/Magazine/June/QueenBee.pdf
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