More than a dozen nations have developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or pilotless aircraft. But the people who design, build, and operate these vehicles today probably would be surprised to learn that the first unmanned aircraft date back more than one hundred years.
In 1915, with World War I raging in Europe, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and inventor Thomas Edison proposed a board of prominent inventors to help prepare the United States for possible entry into the conflict. Thus was formed the Naval Consulting Board.1
Among the board’s members were scientist-inventors Peter Cooper Hewitt and Elmer Sperry. Hewitt had worked in the fields of radio and aeronautics, while Sperry’s genius had brought forth the Sperry Gyroscope. Hewitt began development of an “aerial torpedo” and soon involved Sperry in the project. Sperry’s son Lawrence already had demonstrated an automatic gyrostabilizer that enabled a Curtiss flying boat to fly straight and level without human interaction. In 1914, Lawrence had won a French prize of 15,000 gold francs for these demonstrations.
1. That board was progenitor of the highly successful Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC), established in 1946 and dissolved this year. NRAC was the principal advisory body to the Secretary of the Navy.
2. Kettering later became the first head of the General Motors Research Laboratory. His name is associated with the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Institute in New York.