The radio-controlled television plane

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.

Over the top

I’ve had several inquiries about my recent posts on bombing in the First World War (here and here), all of which want to know why I’ve gone back so far.  Isn’t it all so remote? they ask.   I’d hoped I’d started to answer that in my previous posts, but Tami Davis Biddle – the author of Rhetoric and reality in air warfare (Princeton University Press, 2004) – provides a succinct answer in her ‘Learning in real time: the development and implementation of air power in the First World War’ (in Sebstian Cox and Peter Gray, eds., Air power history: turning points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo):

‘Virtually every important manifestation of twentieth-century air power was envisioned and worked out in at least rudimentary form between 1914 and 1918.’

She has in mind many of the practices I’ve described in my previous posts – and there’s more to come – but I’ve just stumbled upon one that neither of us anticipated.  And, yes, it is ‘remote’…

Gary Warne has a remarkable post, ‘The Predator’s ancestors: UAVs in the Great War’, in which he describes Captain Archibald Low’s Aerial Target project.  The codename was a deliberate distraction, Warne explains, because the plan was to develop a pilotless aircraft as a flying bomb, guided  by wireless from an accompanying manned aircraft to attack Zeppelins and ground targets. The fullest discussion of Low’s work that I’ve been able to find is by Paul Hare here; some of the back-story is provided by Hugh Driver in The birth of military aviation 1903-1914 (Boydell and Brewer, 1997) and there’s a wider historical discussion in Chapter 2 of Denis Larm‘s thesis here.

When the war started ‘Professor’ Low, as he styled himself, was already at work on artillery range-finding and, newly commissioned, was soon at the forefront of the Royal Flying Corps’s Experimental Works (below; Low is in the centre of the front row), supervising a team of 30, including jewellers, carpenters and engineers first at a Chiswick garage and later at Brooklands.

The noise of the aircraft engine interfered with the wireless transmissions, and the first demonstration flight of the Aerial Target was a disaster.  According to Steven Shaker and Alan Wise in War without Men: robots on the future battlefield (Pergamon-Brassey, 1988), ‘during a test flight for a gathering of important Allied dignitaries, the AT went astray and dove upon the guests, who scattered in every direction.’  All together six prototypes were constructed in 1917, but none of them saw combat.

That last verb is spot on, however, because in March 1914 Low had successfully demonstrated what he called TeleVista, an early version of television, and the Times reported that ‘if all goes well with this invention, we shall soon be able, it seems, to see people at a distance’ – a capability that, over 50 years later, would be integral to the USAF’s experiments with reconnaissance drones over North Vietnam (see ‘Lines of descent’, DOWNLOADS tab) and, of course, to today’s Predators and Reapers.  As the Times continued, it was an open question ‘whether Dr Low will be regarded as a benefactor, or the opposite.’

Low never linked his two projects, but in fact the prospect of seeing a distant target had been mooted before the war.  In 1910 Raymond Phillips used a twenty-foot model Zeppelin to demonstrate his wireless-controlled ‘aerial torpedo’ before an entranced crowd at the London Hippodrome. According to the New York Times (22 May 1910):

‘He claims to be able, sitting at a transmitter in London, to send a dirigible balloon through the air at any height and almost any distance.  He can load his balloon with dynamite bombs, he claims, and without leaving his office can send it over a city and wipe the city out.’

He told his audience:

I don’t want to brag, but I feel sure that if England purchases my aerial torpedo she will make short work of the enemy’s fleets and cities in any future war.  Why, I can sit in an armchair in London and drop bombs in Manchester or Paris or Berlin.’

Given the first city on his list it’s scarcely surprising that there should have been questions about navigation.  Asked how he would know that his airship was over ‘the town you purpose to destroy’, Phillips replied that he might work with a large-scale map or a ‘telephotographic lens’.  ‘I think it will do away altogether with existing methods of warfare,’ he predicted.  Much more here (scroll down).

But one of his rivals in the audience had spotted a weakness in the system.  ‘I believe that it would be possible for another operator to interfere with Mr Raymond Phillips’ control,’ speculated Harry Grindell Matthews, using what one newspaper called ‘hostile electric currents’, and he predicted that he could, ‘by manipulating an instrument of my own, compel it [the airship] to turn round and return to the place from which it was sent.’  The two men agreed to a duel between their devices, but I’ve been unable to find any record of the outcome – though the spectre that Matthews raised remains a concern for today’s remotely piloted operations.  Incidentally, Matthews would later claim to have invented a ‘death ray’…. More on him here and here.

The theatricalization of these early projects, with Phillips’s airship nosing its way around the Hippodrome – which was originally designed as a circus and had only been remodelled the previous year – and releasing its load of paper birds forty feet above the stalls, is all of a piece with the ‘bombing competitions‘ and the air displays of the pre-war years.

Here is Flight magazine on 7 May 1910:

‘There is no accounting for popular taste in the matter of public entertainment, but we must confess one could scarcely expect to witness the spectacle of a fairly big model dirigible sailing about the auditorium of the London Hippodrome, where at the moment it constitutes one of the star turns….

‘As an indication of a phase of aeronautics that is quite likely, indeed, we might as well say quite certain, to figure in the future, this display at the Hippodrome is a thoroughly interesting and instructive turn, and brings before many hundreds of people a visual demonstration of a scientific subject that in the ordinary course of events they would only be likely to read about at the best.’

Yet another instance of the theatre of war.

Phillips persisted with his dream, and in September 1913 the Illustrated London News devoted a whole page to ‘torpedoes of the air’ – what it called ‘bomb-droppers directed by wireless’ – and Robinson’s drawing was based on ‘materials provided by Mr Raymond Phillips.’

PHILLIPS Aerial Torpedo in ILN September 1913