A Brief History of Drones: How The First Drones Appeared In The 1800s

Military History | December 21, 2020


In the modern age, drones have become entirely commonplace. Over 100,000 people have a drone pilot license in the United States, and you can buy an entry-level drone for the cost of a gaming console. But while drones are now almost ubiquitous, they're not quite a modern innovation. Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used in various capacities dating back to 1850, making people famous and sometimes bringing about their tragic, untimely deaths. They were responsible for some of the more bizarre attacks in military history, and in the 21st century, they've transformed the balance of power in military theaters across the globe. They, like the cameras they carry, are capsules that have both captured and impacted history.

The First Known Air Raid Involving Drones

The Siege of Vienna in 1849 was the first time balloons were used in an organized fashion in warfare, when 200 balloons were launched from an Austrian ship to coerce the Venetians into surrendering. While balloons are classified separately from drones by modern F.A.A. regulations, the 200 balloons launched in 1849 were equipped with 25-lb. ordnances with built-in timers, which technically qualified them as pilotless vehicle systems. Wind wreaked havoc on the drones' ability to reach their desired destinations, resulting in an ineffective attack, but the cornered Venetians were nearly starved to death and surrendered some days later anyway.

Norma Jeane modeling the propeller on the OQ-2 Radioplane target drone, 1940s.

The Drone That Created Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was not always the world's most glamorous movie star; in fact, she wasn't always Marilyn Monroe. She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson and became Norma Jeane Dougherty when she married James Dougherty in 1942. After her new husband shipped out with the Merchant Marines, Norma Jeane supported herself by working at the Radioplane Munitions Factory in Van Nuys, California, where a photographer "discovered" her. The factory was best known for producing and assembling the OQ-2 Radioplane, which was the largest mass-produced drone in U.S. history and primarily used for target practice by U.S. pilots. Nine years later, she was married to Joe DiMaggio and lifting "soldier morale" on U.S.O. tours.



9,000 Balloon Bombs Killed Six Americans On U.S. Soil

In yet another dubious chapter of balloon warfare, Japan sent a total of 9,000 balloons across the Pacific in an attempted attack on the United States in 1944 and 1945. The balloon launch was reportedly part of a two-year program developed by Japan and one of the first known attempts at intercontinental ballistics, but the balloons were ineffective and (spoiler) didn't alter the outcome of the war.

The balloons weren't without some impact, however. Tragically, a year after the war had ended, six people died (five of them children) when they stumbled upon one of the devices in Gearhart Mountain, Oregon. The event marked the only civilian deaths on the U.S. mainland from the war. News of the incident was initially covered up by the War Department, but they thought better of it when they realized confirming it could prevent future occurrences.


Nikola Tesla Patented A Drone

The Tesla car brand has become synonymous with autonomous technology, but how many of us know why? You probably know the company is named after the prominent inventor but not that Nikola Tesla was arguably the first man to patent an autonomous vehicle.

Tesla believed he could use radio waves, recently discovered by Heinrich Herz, to remotely control large machines. After all, his Tesla coils demonstrated proficiency in controlling electricity using magnetism. What resulted was the patent of a remote-controlled boat, armed with explosives, that could act as an unmanned torpedo.


The New York Herald declared that Tesla wanted to "abolish war" with his new invention, and in an article published in 1898, one visitor to his lab reported:

Mr. Tesla explained that the boat contained the propelling machinery, consisting of an electric motor actuated by a storage battery in the hold ... The electric impulses sent through the atmosphere from the distant operating station ... fire the exploding charge ... in response to signals sent by the operator.

It seems Tesla himself believed the presence of autonomous unmanned vehicles would remove men from the battlefield and the harms of warfare, writing in his patent:

In a broad sense, then, my invention differs from all of those systems which provide for the control of the mechanism carried by a moving object and governing its motion in that I require no intermediate wires, cables, or other form of electrical or mechanical connection with the object save the natural modia in space. I accomplish, nevertheless, similar results and in a much more practicable manner by producing waves, impulses, or radiations which are received through the earth, water, or atmosphere by suitable apparatus' on the moving body and cause the desired actions so long as the body remains within the active region or effective range of such on currents, waves, impulses, or radiations.

Tesla's boat never fully saw battle, but it did increase global interest in the autonomous control of machines. In fact, it was only a decade later that Tesla became interested in using his technology on a new line of powered aircraft being flown in America: a plane built by a pair of engineer brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright.


Joseph Kennedy, Jr. Was Killed During A Drone Mission

History remembers John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy, but it was their oldest brother, Joseph, who seemed most destined for the presidency. As fate would have it, however, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. was killed in a drone incident during Operation Aphrodite in 1944. Kennedy and his copilot were supposed to take off in an explosive-laden aircraft equipped with a radio system and then eject themselves from the aircraft mid-flight when the plane was on its appropriate heading, after which point the aircraft could be controlled by radio, but their aircraft exploded before they could bail out. 

For his courage in volunteering to fly a plane loaded with explosives, Kennedy earned the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor in the Navy, but Operation Aphrodite was a failure. Of the 14 recorded missions flown as part of the program, none succeeded in destroying a target, and it was scrapped in 1945.

Tags: drones | Kennedy

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Brian Gilmore


Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.