The dream of unmanned flight

Illustrated London News, 6 September 1913, 363

A recent post at Ptak Science Books alerted me to the existence of page 363 of the Illustrated London News for 6 September 1913. Not that I was surprised by this in general terms, but I was unaware of what was on it: an artist's impression of a both a flying aircraft carrier -- which idea I've discussed before -- and an airship drone -- which I haven't.

As the images above and below show, the idea was that the 'parent dirigible' (which looks very much like a Zeppelin) would carry several of these 40-foot long 'crewless, miniature air-ships' slung underneath it, and then launch them when in range of a target (here a fortification). The smaller airship would then be controlled by radio to fly drop its bombs 'on any desired spot'.

Illustrated London News, 6 September 1913, 363
The artist is W. B. Robinson, but it was drawn from 'material supplied by Mr. Raymond Phillips'. In 1910 Phillips, a consulting engineer from Liverpool, gave a demonstration of a 20-foot version of his 'aerial torpedo' at the London Hippodrome. Here, according to a report in the New York Times, he impressed an audience which included Claude Grahame-White, who only weeks earlier had become famous for undertaking the world's first night flight. Here, too, the purpose of Phillips's airship drone was war:

"Now," said he [Phillips], "just imagine that row of seats is a row of houses, and that instead of a model, with paper toys in its hold, in its hold, I am controlling a full-sized airship carrying a cargo of dynamite bombs. Watch!"

He pressed another key. There was a faint click from the framework of the airship, and the bottom of the box that hung amidships fell like a trapdoor, releasing, not bombs, but a flight of paper birds, that fluttered gracefully down on the seats beneath. "There!" said the inventor, with a note of finality, and he turned away to answer a shower of questions.1

Phillips claimed that 'for £300 I can make, equip, and dispatch to any distance three wirelessly controlled airships carrying huge quantities of explosives' -- and unlike a naval torpedo, his aerial torpedos were reusable, making them very cost effective.

"I offer my invention to the British Government, whose official representatives will inspect it in a day or two, because I want England to have command of the air just as she has command of the sea."

Although he gave further public demonstrations of his aerial torpedo in 1913 (and despite getting a free plug in the Illustrated News) the government seems to have declined to reward Phillips for his patriotism.2 This is reminiscent of Harry Grindell-Matthews' attempts a decade later to sell his death ray to the Air Ministry. In fact, even more so than death rays, pilotless or robot aircraft (though usually aeroplanes rather than airships!) represent a thread in the early discourse of flight which has barely been recognised by historians.3

Want some examples? Okay, here are just a few of the ones I've found, all of them from before the first V-1 pilotless bombs fell on London. The year before Phillips appeared at the Hippodrome with his aerial torpedo, T. Donovan Bailey's short story 'When the sea failed her' had already depicted a long-range remote-controlled aeroplane destroying the cities of Europe and their inhabitants.

After the war, the aircraft designer Anthony Fokker revealed that

In 1916 the [German] Army authorities asked me if I could make a very cheap aeroplane with a very cheap engine, capable of flying about four hours, which could be steered through the air by wireless waves. They intended to load each one of these aeroplanes which a huge bomb and send them into the air under the control of one flying man, who would herd them through the sky by wireless like a flock of sheep. He would be able to steer them as he pleased, and send them down to earth in just exactly the spot he selected.4

Just what spots would have been selected, Fokker didn't say. He claimed that he was about to start churning out these flying bombs when the Armistice was declared. And indeed, one of the conditions imposed on Germany under the Versailles treaty was a ban on the manufacture of 'air machines which can fly without a pilot'.5

In 1930, the Labour MP J. M. Kenworthy (a former RN lieutenant-commander, and later Lord Strabolgi), wrote a book called New Wars: New Weapons. In it he claimed that:

Aeroplanes can now be flown without a pilot at all, directed by wireless -- taking off, cruising, manoeuvring in the air, returning and landing -- and all the time perfectly under control a hundred and more miles away from the station [...] Robot aeroplanes, controlled by wireless and each carrying half a ton of explosives, could be flown into the heart of London, there to deposit their high-explosive T.N.T., mustard gas or disease germs.6

Later in the decade, this was portrayed in fictional form by Joseph O'Neill in Day of Wrath (1936). Here, London is annihilated by Germany using unmanned aircraft. 'Every single bomber a robot', says a British airman. 'They haven’t lost a man yet and won’t need to, as long as they’re only going for the fixed targets, towns, main roads, railways'.7

Even a novelist so fundamentally uninterested in technological details as Rex Warner in The Aerodrome (1941) uses robotic aeroplanes. The protagonist Roy, who believes himself to be one of a new caste of superior men, a technological elite, is shocked when he discovers that his hero, the Air Vice-Marshal, is planning to replace all of his airmen with aircraft that don't need them. He is shown a display of formation aerobatic flying which is so daring and flawless that only machines and machines alone could carry it out.8

And that right there was the reason for the dream of unmanned flight. Taking people out of the loop as far as possible promised to reduce error from human weakness, whether it be due to physical incapacity or moral capacity. Depending on your point of view, this could be a good thing or a bad thing; but in popular discourse it usually seems to have been thought of as the latter. Normal moral judgements are overturned in wartime, of course, but robots threatened to do away with them entirely, with no sense of pity, instincts for self-preservation, or even feelings of remorse. This is an idea which we are familiar with today (think The Terminator). But it's not a new one by any means. We have combat drones now; and we have histories of combat drones; and now here we have a prehistory of combat drones.


  1. New York Times, 22 May 1910; see also The Times, 2 May 1910, 10. 

  2. After the war -- in which he served in some capacity, as he became known as Major Raymond Phillips -- he seems to have devoted his energies to wireless control of model railways, although he did use his airship to good effect at the 1923 Air League ball, where it 'released on the expectant dancers numbers, which were subsequently drawn for prizes': The Times, 18 July 1923, 10. 

  3. Some research has been done on actual pilotless aircraft, of course: in Britain these included the Sopwith AT, the RAE Larynx and the Queen Bee. See John Farquharson, 'Britain and the flying bomb: the research programme between the two World Wars', War in History 13 (2006), 363-79. 

  4. Ibid., 16 September 1919, 10. 

  5. Daily Mail, 26 April 1922, 5. 

  6. J. M. Kenworthy, New Wars: New Weapons (London: Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1930), 115-6. 

  7. Joseph O'Neill, Day of Wrath (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936). 

  8. Rex Warner, The Aerodrome: A Love Story (London: Vintage Books, 2007 [1941]), 193-5. 

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13 thoughts on “The dream of unmanned flight

  1. I call humbug. And it really is fascinating to see inventors leaping over all the technical difficulties, each pointing towards fallow fields just waiting for inventorial application, in order to come up with something of such dubious use in the first place.

  2. Lester

    Wow, awesome picture.

    Weren't there robot planes for AA target towing by the 1930s? So by the time Kenworthy was writing, it was well into the territory of making more of current technology. By WW2 almost all combatants had some kind of unmanned bombing, it just wasn't cost effective to scale up.

    I find it difficult to imagine that WW1 radio technology could have supported the drone flocks described by Fokker, and I can't think of a WW1 drone other than the Hewitt-Sperry (or was it Curtiss-Sperry?) which had no radio input, just a timer cutoff. Still, it was a lot closer to "possible" than "science fiction".

    RC blimp bombers, though? That's in the realm of the fabulous... and deserves homage in the "retro sf" that seems so popular at the moment!

  3. Post author

    Erik:

    By humbug, do you mean you don't think Phillips was on the level? I'm not so sure. There had already been experiments with remote controlled boats made by Edison and Tesla, so the principle was sound-ish. The propellers do look pretty small but as far as I know it he only ever demonstrated his aerial torpedo inside. I doubt it would have been much use outside in any sort of breeze. Even inside, he may have cheated with a guide wire to stop it going off course.

    And yes, that's the thing about drones and death rays and so on. There was such a vast amount of effort put into these dubious ideas by so many different people in different countries, long before they were really practical or even needed, that there must be something deeper going on, some more fundamental impulse.

    Lester:

    Long time no see! Yes, for actual pilotless aircraft see footnote 3 :) Kenworthy also mentions a Royal Navy battleship 'used for target practice, that is manoeuvred on the sea by wireless waves and zigzags gaily along at high speed without a living soul on board, under perfect control from a distance of many miles' (115-6). He may have been referring to HMS Centurion, but in any case it was a common practice in interwar navies. So again the principle was established.

    I think you're right, the radio control of a horde of cruise missiles in WWI seems unlikely. But there was some development of radio-controlled aircraft at the time, in Britain: namely the Low AT or Sopwith AT. But it was an anti-Zeppelin weapon originally, so short-ranged: a SAM rather than a cruise missile.

  4. Lester

    I'm really glad you're still blogging - airminded continues to be fascinating, thank you!

    Sorry, yes, I should have followed your footnotes! Queen Bee was what I was thinking of for 30s radio-control target towing.

    Compared to flying a fearsome flock of Fokkers, the prospect of crashing a drone into a Zeppelin sounds more like a realistic (if difficult) aspiration for WW1 radio control and less like raw technical enthusiasm untempered by practical considerations! Maybe it's just the different way the two ideas have been recorded.

    The more I think about it the more Phillips' indoor demonstration airship sounds like an impressive technological feat in its own right: building an RC blimp, even an indoor-only one, is still not trivial a century later. Lifting the radio and battery technology of 1910 with a gasbag that can manoeuvre in the Hippodrome (and that the prop can usefully move) must have been a pretty tricky balance.

  5. Brett:

    It's the control problem I mainly had in mind. Visual feedback (and experience with the device) greatly reduces the operator's problems, because the basic issue is that unstable systems need some kind of "computing element" in the loop.

    Now I'm going to point to a mass of partial differential equations and pretend that I understand them.

  6. Lester

    Erik - you're right, it is curious that none of these early enthusiasts for remote-guided planes seem to mention the basic limit that you can't go out of line-of-sight (except in a straight line, straight line, straight line, crash... approach like a V1) until you've developed TV cameras or complex autonomous-guidance systems. Surely neither of these requirements could simply be brushed under the carpet with the technology of 1910 or even 1920?

    I'm not sure I see this as a stability problem as such, though.

  7. We tend to think of dynamic instability in aircraft design as a given, but it wasn't always thus. In fact in the pre-Great War era, the objective was for 'safe' aircraft that were naturally stable. Both the BE-2 and RE-8 were 'stable' aircraft as a design merit; to assist with the observation role by minimising the pilot's workload - as we now know to the detriment of the manoeuvrability and thus combat survival chances. I mention the RE-8 particularly because of the strange story of Sandy & Hughes and their aircraft that flew (without human control) for some time after they'd been killed by a single bullet.

    http://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/44/page58_white/

    So positive stability can be built in to a heavier than air aircraft in (roughly) that era (as well as modern free-flight models). Depending on what you want to hit, actual detailed control for direction adjustment may not be necessary. Working out how to do this in 1911 terms would be a real use of Steampunk thinking, and fun. Sadly I seem to have mislaid the brass access handle to the mad scientist workshop.

  8. Post author

    Erik:

    Phillips did at least consider the visual feedback problem, though his solution was dubious. From the NYT article linked in the post:

    "How can you tell when your airship is just over the town you purpose to destroy?" asked some one.

    Mr. Phillips replied replied that he might work with a large scale map in front of him. Or possibly he might fit each airship with a telephotographic lens, which, being en rapport with a reflector placed before the operator, would show him the country over which the airship flew.

    As for stability, we're talking about airships here, not aeroplanes. Airships arguably have too much stability -- you have to drop ballast or vent gas to change altitude by much. And they are slower than aeroplanes too (though not so much in 1910). Nor do they fly thanks to their aerodynamic qualities, so partial DEs aren't such a worry. I think in some ways airships would have been easier to control remotely than aeroplanes. But being less powerful they would have been more vulnerable to the elements and less capable of doing useful things. Their big advantages, of range and payload, would have been negated by the limited control range. So it's not surprising we never saw these in use.

  9. Lester

    Hi Brett, sorry, I couldn't see the NYT fulltext for some reason.

    Phillips' suggestion of using extraordinary telephoto lenses is a marvellous idea (leaving aside the obvious impracticality) and fills me with glee. It deserves a place in science-fantasy literature! Just not real life. Thank you for that.

    I'm starting to suspect that flying an airship was a lot trickier than it looks. However, I didn't think that aerodynamic stability was the stability in question - I read Erik's "unstable systems" as "unstable in control theory terms" rather than "unstable in aerodynamic terms" (Erik, can you clarify? Correct me if I'm wrong). Aerodynamic stability will keep you straight and level in still air, but changing winds, thermals and so forth mean you can't aim that way.

    This is where the Hewitt-or-Curtiss-Sperry's gyros come in (and why anything out of direct control before it was a non-starter). I would contend that anything without its own means of regulation against external forces (reliant on radio control alone) is a toy or a MACLOS weapon but not a "pilotless aircraft" or "robot". Conveniently but rather sadly, that draws a nice firm line with Phillips on the side marked "dreaming" and his successors not.

  10. Where was I before all the overtime and the travel and the family crises?

    Oh, yeah! Yes, Brett, I did mean control theory. My bad. If these guys had spent their energies working on the deficiencies of the Sperry autopilot that they spent on building aerial torpedoes, they could have been rich as Bill Gates.

  11. Post author

    Okay, I see the distinction now. As I said, I doubt Phillips' aerial torpedo would work outside, as in the drawing. But getting it to do things (anything) by radio was a first step on the way to true pilotlessness and I think a reasonably impressive one for 1910.

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