Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), colloquially referred to as drones, are generally considered a relatively recent invention, especially as weapons of war. In fact, they first flew over a century ago, when the airplane itself was less than a decade and a half old. It was an unmanned guided aircraft, aimed by aligning it to a target, its range controlled by an ingenious device designed by its creators. The weapon was intended to be launched behind the trenches of World War I Europe, flown over the men huddled within, and detonated at targets otherwise unreachable behind enemy lines. It was, for all practical purposes, a flying bomb.
Hesitant generals among the Allies questioned the wisdom of an unmanned bomb flying over the heads of their men, with no means of controlling it once launched. It was developed too late for use in the European War, but subsequent testing showed its promise as a weapon. Eventually the project was dropped, mostly due to budget constraints. Despite its never being mass-produced, the flying bomb, known as the Kettering Bug, brought together some of the leading industrialists and inventors of the day – Charles Kettering, Henry Ford, Orville Wright, and others – and their ingenuity created a device which was the forerunner of today’s drones and cruise missile. Here is the story of the Kettering Bug.
1. Charles Kettering was a leading inventor and engineer of his day
Charles Kettering’s business career began as an engineer with the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio. Between 1904 and 1909 Kettering was awarded 23 patents for inventions in the name of NCR, including a system which preceded the modern credit card, as well as for an electric cash register. In 1907 he joined Edward Deeds, NCR’s Chief of Construction, and several other company employees in a group of engineers and inventors who enjoyed exploring improvements to the automobile, then still a novelty. The group met on weekends in a barn owned by Deeds, calling themselves the “Barn Gang”. Kettering’s natural leadership skills made him prominent in the group, which considered him to be the boss, calling him “Boss Ket”.
In 1909, Kettering and others formally incorporated the group, naming it the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Corporation. It became famous as Delco. Kettering had two major improvements for the automobile in development at the time. One was a means of replacing the magneto, then commonly used as the source of ignition. The other was the elimination of the hand crank for starting the car. Hand cranks often kicked back on the operator, broken hands, wrists, and arms were often the result. Fatalities were also not uncommon. Henry Leland, president of Cadillac, asked Kettering and Delco to come up with an alternative means of starting an automobile.