I’ve written before about the long history of drones (UAVs or RPAs, if you prefer – and the Air Force does prefer), and the unrealised intersections between remotely-controlled aircraft and early television: I’m thinking of Archibald Low‘s experiments with what he called Televista in 1914 and his trial pilotless aircraft (codenamed ‘Aerial Target”) in the dog days of the First World War. I had assumed that the connections did not materialise – and even then in very precarious ways – until the closing stages of the Second World War with the US Project Aphrodite, which I discussed briefly in ‘Lines of Descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab).
But now, via Gizmodo, I discover another way-station that was put in place in 1924. First published in The Experimenter magazine, and then republished in Television News in 1931 in its March-April issue, an article by Hugo Gernsback described the military operation of a ‘radio-controlled television plane’, directed by radio and navigated using ‘electric eyes’ that would enable ‘the control operator, although 50, 100 or possibly 500 miles away, [to] see exactly what goes on around the plane, just the same as if he himself were seated in the cockpit; with the further advantage that, sitting before a screen, he can scan six directions all at once, which no human aviator can do.’
And, just like Project Aphrodite and its modern descendants, this would be a hunter-killer mission:
‘The radio-controlled television airplane can then be directed to the spot where it is supposed to drop its bombs. Moreover, the distant-control operator can see exactly when his machine arrives over a given spot. A sighting arrangement can be attached to the plane in such a manner that, when the object to be bombed comes over the cross-wires in the range-finder, the bomb or bombs are dropped at the exact moment.’
But as the illustration indicates – and in contrast to today’s Predators and Reapers – it was assumed that the aircraft would be able to operate in contested air space – and even more effectively than a conventional aircraft:
If, for instance, an enemy airplane suddenly comes out of a cloud and starts dropping bombs on our machine below, the control operator sees this enemy machine quicker 500 miles away, than if an aviator sat in the cockpit one-quarter of a mile away from or below the enemy bomber. The control operator will send a radio signal that will immediately discharge a smoke screen from his radio television plane, hiding his craft in smoke.
Explaining the decision to republish the article, Gernsback accepted that when it first appeared ‘the ideas set forth therein might have appeared more or less fantastic’ – but ‘they are no longer considered so today':
‘As a matter of fact, the radio-controlled airplane is with us today. Several of the leading governments have already in their possession airplanes that can now fly and stay aloft for any length of time, within reason, without a pilot or any human being on board.
‘The television adjunct will follow as a matter of course.’
Gernsback was an extraordinary man. Sometimes hailed as the father of science fiction – hence the Hugo Awards – he was keenly interested in turning his imaginative ideas into material fact. Even before the First World War he had invented a home radio set. Matthew Lasar explains:
Gernsback’s “Telimco Wireless” didn’t receive the signals of any broadcast radio stations, since there were almost none before 1920. But it did ring a bell in an adjacent room without any connecting wires. Such was the sensation the device made that local police demanded a demonstration, following up on a fraud complaint. Satisfied that it worked, the Telimco was subsequently sold in many department stores … until the first World War, when the government banned amateur wireless transmission.
But he was soon fascinated by television; he launched Radio News and then move on to Television News as platforms for his ideas and enthusiasms. The image above shows him in 1963 wearing his ‘television glasses’. He died the following year, or he might have invented Google Glass too.