On May 23, 2013, one day after acknowledging that U.S. drone strikes had killed four Americans during his tenure, President Obama delivered his first major speech to outline drone warfare policies.

Since 2002, the nation has been arming drones to fight its global war on terrorism. Yet it took a decade of such attacks and the prospect of Obama’s upset in the 2012 presidential election to “develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones,” in the words of New York Times reporter Scott Shane.

Six months after securing a second term, Obama appeared at Fort McNair’s National Defense University to launch a public discussion over the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) under the rules of international warfare.

Hoping to blunt some of the mounting controversy, the president reminded his audience that, “from the Civil War to our struggle against fascism, on through the long twilight struggle of the Cold War, battlefields have changed and technology has evolved.” While drones may be new, Obama suggested, American leaders have long embraced cutting-edge weapons and severe tactics to preserve American ideals.

Obama also evoked these hard-won victories of the past to contrast with the apparent precision, economy, and flexibility of twenty-first-century drone warfare. Though controversial, limited drone strikes could be a hedge against the devastation caused by older strategies of annihilation and attrition that made the Civil War and World War II so deadly.

Obama claims that UAV warfare is not only legal, but also more moral in that there is a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

Not everyone shares such optimistic appraisals of drones, and even Obama was forced to concede the dangers of undue secrecy, lack of oversight, and diplomatic fallout. Antiwar activist Medea Benjamin heckled him mid-speech: “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?”

Time will tell if UAVs will emancipate us from the ravages of modern warfare, or if they will become the appliances of Orwellian control.

What is remarkable is how much Obama’s speech not only reflects current mixed feelings over drones, but also an American ambivalence about robotic flying machines that has existed for well over 100 years. Our cultural uncertainty over UAVs is as old as the automobile and predates the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Moreover, the American military has been in the business of testing unmanned aerial weapons since World War I and has deployed drones in combat in every major conflict since World War II.

Since their emergence in the late nineteenth century, Americans have regarded unmanned aerial systems as four basic cultural phenomena: heralds of human accomplishment and hope for the future, signs of inhuman depravity portending society’s doom, mechanical misfires that are both ineffective and humorous, and transcendent machines that spark existential questions about war and society, tapping into what David Nye calls our “fundamental hopes and fears.”

Langley’s Aerodrome and drones before World War I

On May 6th, 1896, Samuel Pierpont Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian and an early pursuer of heavier-than-air flight, launched a steam-powered drone dubbed the Aerodrome No. 5 (Latin for “air runner”) over the Potomac near Washington, D.C.

The pilotless craft, constructed of wood, fabric, and steel, gracefully spiraled one hundred feet into the air and one half mile downstream before its engine gave out. A second flight narrowly escaped a thicket of trees to settle gently on the river.

Each trip of the Aerodrome lasted barely 90 seconds. Yet observer Alexander Graham Bell believed the event historic, telling newspapers: “No one could have witnessed these experiments without being convinced that the practicability of mechanical flight had been demonstrated.”

This first well-known American drone was quickly described in the types of words that continue to color today’s discussion of pilotless aircraft.

Some described the Aerodrome as a liberating machine (like Bell’s own telephone) that could erase natural impediments and unlock a bountiful future for mankind. The New York World likened Langley’s drone to an act of magic, and assured that, “no man has as yet really flown, but on May 6 a machine did. With that machine men will fly.”

The British Church Weekly praised the Aerodrome as a peaceful triumph betokening the uplift of mankind and Langley for enabling “common people, as well as poets and orators, to soar.”

Not every reviewer was so enamored. Indiana’s Logansport Pharos Tribune scoffed it was “a model only … shaped like a mackerel … a toy” and “of doubtful value, for it is not possible to imagine even a tried and successful aerodrome in popular demand.”

Given America’s late-nineteenth-century fixation on projecting military force and defending newly won overseas territories, the Aerodrome was unsurprisingly imagined as a revolutionary weapon.

A year after the Spanish-American War, the Daily Herald of Delphos, Ohio speculated the drone combined with a “dynamite thrower” as conceivably “the most powerful engine of war known to civilized man.” Armed with the tiny craft, the American military would be invincible: “A fleet of ironclads could be destroyed by it in fifteen minutes. Coast defenses would be broken up like rail fences before a tornado.”

The Boston Globe went further, surmising hostile Aerodromes might even “make war so terrible, that the national troubles of the future will be settled by arbitration.”

World War I and Interwar Drone Fantasies

The Aerodrome’s importance and lethality existed principally in the imaginations of newspaper editors, and Langley’s device was largely forgotten in the wake of the Wright Brothers’ manned ascent in 1903.

With rapid advances in manned aviation, including military aircraft, the possibility of armed drones once again surfaced.

Well before Europe’s fracturing into myriad battlefields in 1914, speculative fiction depicted unmanned “aerial torpedoes” as part of the mechanized future of war. An imaginary drone was the star of a 1909 short film, The Airship Destroyer (aka The Battle in the Clouds). It depicted German dirigibles attacking England, a premise lifted from H.G. Wells’ novel The War in the Air (1908). The “airship destroyer” performs better than manned planes and heroically spares the world such horrors as the bombardment of British homes, churches, and civilians by zeppelins.

Copying this storyline, D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film The Flying Torpedo shows another citizen inventor saving California from a Japanese invasion with his wireless flying bombs. Both Airship Destroyer and The Flying Torpedo were screened widely and rereleased many times even as the “war to end all wars” raged around their viewers.

Indeed, soon after the U.S. entered World War I, remotely piloted vehicles moved from the silver screen to drawing boards of arms manufacturers in the hopes of saving American lives with explosive UAVs sent deep into German territory. Perhaps inspired by Hollywood, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels’ Naval Consulting Board (NCB) enlisted private scientists and engineers in the “war of technological surprises.”

Headed by Thomas Edison, the board induced Elmer Ambrose Sperry, inventor of the stabilizing gyroscope, to join them. Sperry’s gyroscope became the major component of the NCB’s “most audacious and forward-looking project”: the Curtis-Sperry Aerial Torpedo.

The military investigated several such drones during the war, including the “Kettering Bug” or “Liberty Eagle” flying bomb, designed by Charles F. Kettering (future lead research engineer for General Motors) and built by Orville Wright’s Dayton Wright Airplane Company.

The idea behind each of these drones was simple, if their execution was not: once launched, the diminutive, explosive-laden planes were stabilized and guided by a combination of gears, pneumatics, and gyros. After a predetermined number of engine revolutions, their engines would stall and the UAVs would plunge in a terminal dive upon whatever unlucky object or person lay beneath.

Though neither drone was perfected in time for combat, the Curtis-Sperry Aerial Torpedo became the first purpose-built attack drone to make a successful flight. And despite its poor performance, the Kettering Bug impressed the army enough to become the first mass-produced drone in history.

Drone strikes were not a part of the Great War’s appalling destruction, but the U.S. military kept its UAV projects going well into the 1920s, hoping unmanned “death engines” might inoculate the U.S. against the evils of future wars.

Popular images of radio-controlled drones also endured in the interwar years, as media reports kept the public abreast of drone developments. These stories mixed hope about eliminating American war casualties with caution for possible domestic peril.

In 1924, Literary Digest suggested the newly formed Geneva Convention should prohibit the “manless airplane,” lest “this winged brood of destruction” spell the “final and utter destruction of the race and its civilization.” A remorseful Kettering later hoped blueprints for his Liberty Eagle would remain locked up “for all time.”

A similar if sillier pessimism crept into the 1936 cartoon Plane Dippy, which pitted Porky Pig, a newly enlisted Army Air Corps cadet, against an unruly experimental robot plane. With Porky trapped on board, the malfunctioning drone carves a path of destruction through the air base and a nearby town, before the portly Looney Tunes star can escape to a life of safe boredom in the infantry.