Nikola Tesla, the famed pioneer of electrical technology who rivaled even Thomas Edison, designed and displayed a working drone in 1898 — nearly 16 years before World War I — that he saw as a weapon that would end all wars.
Tesla’s drone was a 4-foot-long, remotely controlled boat that could be maneuvered via radio waves. He first displayed the craft during an 1898 demonstration in Madison Square Garden in New York.
At the show, crowds were shocked to see the boat respond to Tesla’s commands without any visible connection between the control box and the small craft. When Tesla patented the invention, he billed it as a tool of exploration, transportation, and war.
Tesla’s military plan was that the drone boat would give way to other drones, each more destructive than the last. Once nations could fight wars using robots without risking their troops, the potential for unlimited destruction was supposed to stay people’s hands and bring about a “permanent peace among nations.”
Unfortunately for Tesla, military interest in the weapon was muted, and his patent expired without any serious interest from the War or Navy Departments. Drones didn’t take off as a weapon until the end of the 1900s, and their ever-widening adoption has not ended warfare.
The first drones didn’t even make use of remote control technology. America’s first drone-type weapon was the Kettering Bug aerial torpedo, a plane modified to follow a pre-set course and fly into its target with a large load of explosives in World War I.
Though the Kettering Bug was based on a remote-control target aircraft, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, the bug had no radio controls of its own.
The Army did attempt to use remote-control aircraft as bombs in World War II in Operation Aphrodite. Engineers modified B-24s with the addition of radio controls and thousands of pounds of explosive. These flying bombs, dubbed the B-8s, would be flown to altitude by two pilots who would bail out at 10,000 feet. From there, a bombardier in a “mother ship” B-24 would fly the plane remotely to its target.
Aphrodite was a major failure with more damage done to England by malfunctioning B-8s than was done to Germany. Some B-8 pilots were killed by premature detonations including future-President John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Navy Lt. Joseph Kennedy.