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.

Images of drone-enabled Armageddon grew more elaborate as experts appraised advances in UAV technology.

General William “Billy” Mitchell, controversial air power visionary and father the U.S. Air Force, produced graphic scenes of drone-delivered death while also advocating their use. In a series of popular magazine articles the outspoken Mitchell was preoccupied with what might be called an “aerial torpedo gap” that he saw growing between the United States and Europe.

Mitchell’s 1928 Collier’s piece “Look Out Below!” disjointedly delights in cutting-edge aerial torpedoes, while simultaneously describing a harrowing, cataclysmic gas attack on New York City by drones, “suffocating the people, getting into subways, penetrating basements and lower floors of houses from which women and children would come rushing out and fall dead on the sidewalks.”

Mitchell’s emotional propaganda both boosted magazine sales and presaged future air warfare tactics. He believed the U.S. should not shy from aiming aerial torpedoes at civilians to spread terror, hobble an enemy’s ability to produce war materials, and quickly end wars.

Mitchell’s ideas disturbed many readers and American military leaders, but by the late 1930s world events played out his dire scenarios. His prediction of aerial torpedoes fired from Germany or France into population centers proved correct, although London and not New York was subject to drone attacks in the coming war.

World War II and the Dawn of the V-1

Technologically and culturally, World War II was the real coming of age of the combat drone, beginning dramatically in spring 1944 when Nazi robot bombs started falling on London.

Germany’s Fieseler Fi-103, better known as the V-1, was the progenitor of the modern cruise missile and the most widely used drone of World War II. Taking a page from Billy Mitchell, Hitler targeted his wunderwaffe at civilian centers, hoping to bring England to its knees and forestall the imminent Allied invasion of Fortress Europe. While accomplishing neither, the V-1’s cultural impact is easily the longest lasting and most varied of any drone before or since.

A measure of this influence is in the array of nicknames given to the V-1, running the gamut from silly to somber and outnumbering those earned by any other specific model of weapon: “doodlebug,” “bumblebomb,” “chucksnuff,” “dynamite meteor,” “whizbang,” “diver,” “Goebbels’ Gizmo,” “crow,” “June bug,” “crossbow,” and “Hellhound.” The best known appellation, “buzz bomb,” has since been applied to a disparate array of products including perfume, fishing lures, batteries, and bowling balls.

In July 1944, Life magazine declared the robot bomb one of the “historical mementos of World War II” and as culturally significant as the Jeep and Spam. This cultural cachet is all the stranger given the buzz bomb’s reputation as “one of the most terror-filled psychological weapons ever devised.”

Fulfilling fifty years of speculation about aerial torpedoes, the buzz bomb’s development into a cultural icon cannot be separated from the desperation with which Axis powers flung it as their empire began to unravel.

Originally dismissed by the Luftwaffe as a “dubious and uninteresting” project, the drone was resurrected in 1942 after the failure of conventional air raids on England and in response to round-the-clock bombardment of Germany by the Allies.

Rechristened the Vergeltungswaffe (revenge weapon), the V-1 was like a diabolical Model-T: a cheap, mass-produced, futuristic death delivery system. Built at the Volkswagen and Mittelwerke plants, often with slave labor, each drone could be assembled in just 350 man-hours and at only 2% the cost of a medium bomber.

Since no German aircrews would be lost in V-1 sorties, the drone seemed to offer maximum bang for the Deutsche Mark. “What the average damage from a robot bomb hit is,” observed American journalist W. Earl Hall, “I’ve never seen expressed in pound notes or dollars and cents. I only know that it’s very, very large.”

Though plagued with malfunctions, over 2,400 German UAVs under rudimentary autopilot control crossed the English Channel, killing 5,500 people and injuring 16,000 more between June 1944 and March 1945. At the height of the attacks, the British evacuated 360,000 women and children from London, validating Gen. Mitchell’s prediction that aerial torpedoes could spread terror among civilians.

The V-1’s wild aerobatics and unpredictability added to its folklore. Stories about V-1s filled magazines, newspapers, newsreels, radio reports, comic books, and other media. Jokes abounded about the buzz bomb’s randomness and ineffectiveness. “The mountain hath groaned and given forth a mouse!” quipped one of Winston Churchill’s advisors after the initial buzz bomb assault failed to do much damage.

Bob Hope gleefully mocked vivacious actress Betty Hutton (and her brassy singing voice) as the “Allies answer to the buzz bomb.” As if in retort, a cleaning woman quoted in Yank Magazine jokingly dubbed the drones “Bob Hope bombs,” explaining: “When they come … you bob down. And then hope for the best.”

The robot’s random cruelty enraged others. An American WAC seethed that a chance V-1 hit that killed 74 American soldiers was “more like murder than war.”

The drone’s haphazardness posed an existential threat as well, endangering cultural treasures and suggesting new societal realities. The U.S. Army’s Roberts Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas castigated the Nazis for “campaigns of sheer terror” in launching “robot bombs without the slightest regard for what was hit.”

This sort of violent modernity knocked about the world of art as well. British impressionistic painters tried to capture the weirdness of doodlebug raids in watercolors and oils.

Writers like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell also commented on the social damage done by robot bombs. Hemingway disparaged the V-1 as “an ugly metal dart with a white-hot bunghole,” endangering civilians and insulting the masculinity of fighter pilots. The ordeal of senseless drone attacks becoming part of everyday life left its mark on Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Flying bombs called “steamers” randomly menace Winston Smith and other workers, but are ignored by Big Brother’s tyrannical government.

Some commentators wondered if the arrival of robot bombs might reshape civilization’s moral standards.

For peace activist Norman Angell the V-1 was an indictment of society’s “incapacity to restrain criminal violence in international affairs.” He wondered whether global unity was sufficient to curtail the perfection of robot bombs before cities like New York and Chicago were reduced to “bloody rubble.”

Fellow pacifist H. M. Tomlinson (whose home was destroyed by a V-1) saw drone warfare was the “arrival…of Frankenstein [that] changes the old values of existence.” Richard Lee Strout saw no controversy in ranking flying bomb attacks as equivalent atrocities to the Nazi death camps, arguing that both were war crimes necessitating Germany’s harsh punishment.

The V-1 produced fears of Axis raids on American cities. In 1945 Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, caused a mini-sensation when he announced that robot attacks on Washington, D.C. and New York City causing death and destruction were “possible and probable” within the coming months. “I know the enemy,” Ingram explained, “think what it would mean to Dr. Goebbels at this stage of the war to announce that ‘today we have destroyed New York.’”

Although other officials were more restrained, the army and navy had secretly developed a “Joint Robot Defense Plan” to defend the Eastern Seaboard against U-boat launched flying bombs.

While statisticians calculated the risks of Americans being injured or killed by flying bombs at fifteen million to one, insurance providers reported that the “robot scare” had caused an uptick in sales of domestic war damage insurance policies. The New York Times charged the directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art with playing chicken with the “most valuable collection of art treasures in the city” by not taking the drone threat seriously.

Comic book publishers jumped on the apocalyptic imagery of a buzz bomb attack on the U.S. “Robot Death Over Manhattan,” the cover story in the January 1945 issue of Wings Comics, depicts swarms of buzz bombs threatening the Empire State Building and exploding in Times Square. Similarly, a Human Torch comic from mid-1945 has Japanese soldiers directing buzz bomb attacks on the city via television.

Catastrophic visions like these had lasting power. When a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in July 1945, some eyewitnesses feared a Japanese attack with appropriated Nazi V-weapons.

The American Adoption of Drones

While some fretted over the social changes wrought by German robots, the Allies were already fighting fire with fire.

The U.S. Army Air Force’s “War Weary Bomber” project turned obsolete planes into flying bombs that were steered by pilots in other planes at German cities in the ANVIL and APHRODITE operations in 1944.

This response to the V-1 proved overly complicated and often more dangerous to its own aircrews than to its targets. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., elder brother of John F. Kennedy, was killed when the drone he was preparing prematurely exploded.

The effectiveness and ethics of these primitive drones divided American military leadership.

General Carl Spaatz, commander of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, believed UAVs should be directed at undefended urban areas for greater “psychological effect.” Navy Chief of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy demurred, calling drones an “inhumane and barbarous type of warfare with which the United States should not be associated.”

Despite Leahy’s qualms, the U.S. Navy was at the leading edge of America’s drone warfare programs, launching purpose-built drones like the radar-controlled SWOD-9 “Bat” bombs against Japanese targets in the Pacific.

A U.S. military campaign attempted to make robot warriors palatable to the American people and starred actor Reginald Denny, an aviation enthusiast and radio-controlled plane hobbyist.

Denny adapted his sophisticated toys for use as target drones, and in 1944 the army’s First Motion Picture Unit, headed by Denny’s friend Ronald Reagan, dispatched photographers to document the Radioplane factory.

One of Denny’s female workers, a young Marilyn Monroe, was launched into stardom when a Yank Magazine photographer took pictures of her holding one of the diminutive target drones and steered her toward modeling. With slight exaggeration one might say that America’s quintessential 1950s “bombshell” was drone delivered.

U.S. auto manufacturers like Ford and Willys Overland soon began producing a much more deadly model than Denny’s diminutive targets. The JB-2 (“Jet Bomb 2”) Thunderbug was reverse-engineered from V-1s captured intact and a virtual knock-off of the infamous doodlebug.

Celebrating the quick appropriation of Axis technology, Universal Newsreel claimed that while the German drones had terrified and killed civilians, America’s counterfeit was “a super dream of modern warfare, fostered in the imagination of Jules Verne.”

Contorting himself in a like manner, Major General Bennett E. Meyers of the army’s Air Technical Service Command (ATSC) tried to distinguish America’s bomb from its Nazi twin. “We may never need the robot bomb,” explained Meyers, “for the Army Air Forces do not go in for indiscriminate bombing attacks. But if we do need it, we’ve got a good one.”

Drones, the Atomic Bomb, and the Cold War

A few weeks before the Trinity atomic test in New Mexico, Meyers’s ATSC mounted displays in Washington, D.C. and New York of “America’s buzz bomb” as part of a public war bond drive.

The campaign tapped into the nation’s anti-Japanese zeal, drawing unsubtle associations between the aims of U.S. and Nazi drones. “You’ve read how much damage ‘buzz’ bombs did to England,” announced the campaign, “now see America’s own robot bomb which is part of our plans to beat Japan.”

The International News Service was more blunt, indicating that robot strikes on Tokyo would teach “Japanese civilians [the] meaning of total war.”

By 1945, indiscriminate drone strikes by America might not have shocked a public accustomed to the carnage of World War II and hopeful that a new weapon might abbreviate the hostilities.

Ultimately, the JB-2 was never deployed, but the suggestion of its targeting Japanese civilians paved the way for a public understanding of the atomic bomb. The advent of the nuclear age and its fears of instantaneous destruction overshadowed the birth of drone warfare, yet both weapons intertwined in meaningful ways.

Both the V-1 program and Manhattan Project were conceived in 1942 as desperate scientific gambles, in partial awareness of each other. President Roosevelt’s initiation of the atomic program and its breakneck pacing were inspired by gloomy forecasts about a German atomic V-weapon falling on American cities.

Especially striking were the ways in which the moral debate over robot bombs presaged and even set the stage for discussions over the ethics of atomic warfare.

George Fielding Eliot’s 1944 article “Science and Foreign Policy” in the journal Foreign Affairs, written almost a year before the Manhattan Project became public knowledge, regarded push-button flying bombs as the most troubling sign of science’s power “to destroy us all.”

He called for the creation of a global organization to police the use of robot bombs, evocative of the future International Atomic Energy Agency. Without an international agreement on drones “a secret armament race between the United States and Russia would keep the world in terror and undermine the whole structure of world security.”

In many post-war commentaries imagining the horrors of World War III, the two infernal devices were combined into a single “atomic buzz bomb.”

The New York Times speculated that armed “fleets of drones” could “saturate” and confuse enemy defenses, allowing a few atomic warheads to sneak through.

Professor Arthur H. Compton, Chancellor of Washington University, envisioned a superpower war wherein “jet propelled planes … with atomic warheads … sent without warning at each of the enemy’s major production centers” would disintegrate cities, killing 10% of the population in the first hour of combat.

Gen. Spaatz, too, raised the specter of a nuclear Pearl Harbor in a December 1945 Collier’s article warning readers that nuclear laden “robot planes … controlled by an internal ‘brain’” could challenge America’s air defenses and make World War II seem “mild and slow” by comparison. Months later, Spaatz predicted the Soviets had “improved on the German buzz bomb” capable of more than ten times the range of the original V-1.

Spaatz’s alarm over Soviet drones took strange cultural divergences. In mid-1946 a “ghost rocket” panic swept Scandinavia, and thousands reported buzz bombs streaking across the skies. This early UFO-like flap was ignited by the Soviet capture of the Peenemünde German rocket facility where V-1s had first been tested.

Similarly, in the opening sequence of the science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), radar operators mistake a flying saucer for a Soviet buzz bomb attack on the East Coast.

Like earlier fears of V-1 raids on the U.S., the danger posed by Soviet drones was greatly exaggerated. Stalin’s crash program to develop drones (fearing V-1 attacks on Moscow) was plagued with setbacks and not viable until 1952. Yet Soviet investment in ballistic missile technology outpaced American capabilities, eventually allowing the Soviets many firsts in the Space Race.

The Cold War proved a technological boon to drone warfare, but a setback in terms of the broader public discussion on UAVs.

America’s second-generation buzz bombs were radar controlled, launched from submarines, and fitted with nuclear warheads. Radio-controlled drones were used on a limited basis during Korean War, and were even given star treatment in Glenn Ford movie The Flying Missile (1950)—“The Bomb That Stalks Its Prey!”

However, real public debate about push-button warfare, which had been reaching a crescendo in the late 1940s, began evaporating in mid 1950s, just as a series of embarrassing domestic accidents occurred, injuring civilians and killing American servicemen.

The most embarrassing drone snafu was the so-called “Battle of Palmdale” in 1956 when a drone launched from Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California went rogue and threatened to fall on Los Angeles. Air force rockets failed to hit the runaway craft, and instead ignited enormous brushfires.

Miraculously, no one was injured, but the fires and shrapnel destroyed property and came frighteningly close to bystanders. Although the fugitive F6F Hellcat drone eventually crashed inertly into the desert, a furious Los Angeles County Supervisor Roger Jessup introduced a resolution demanding “utmost care” in future drone testing.

As the Cold War dragged on, a new breed of multiuse “smart” robotic spies filled out top-secret military and intelligence agency arsenals.

By the early 1960s, Ryan “Fire Fly” and “Lightning Bug” reconnaissance drones were flying CIA missions over Cuba, China, and Vietnam, replacing human U-2 pilots who were frequently shot down. The unmanned spies were just as vulnerable to interception, but their robotic nature allowed U.S. officials to take a noncommittal stance if operational losses occurred. Today’s official reticence to discuss drone operations was born in this “no comment” era.

However, the stealth and flexibility offered by Kennedy-era drones was hemmed by the all-consuming desire to secure technological secrets. Days after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara suggested air force drones might be used to monitor the removal of Soviet surface-to-air missiles, but noted military opposition to “possible loss and compromise of the highly classified drone.”

Drones were significant in U.S. intelligence gathering and electronic air defenses during the Vietnam War, and were anthropomorphized by both Americans and Vietnamese. American ground crews affectionately named their UAVs, painting them with nose art and awarding “purple hearts” to wounded or lost drones. North Vietnamese soldiers shot these drones down and posed victoriously atop the American robots, as if having vanquished mechanical dragons. Yet this theater remained mostly on the battlefield, failing to become part of larger public discussions about the war.

Research, testing, and use of UAVs moved forward, but all outside the public eye. When drones did make the papers it was in strange incidents like the crash of an alien-looking Ryan Model 154 stealth drone into the Los Alamos Atomic Energy Complex in 1969.

Government silence left press and public to speculate about black budgets and the secret UAV missions. Incidents that breached the wall of secrecy around intelligence drones were rare, and only convinced officials to take tighter controls over top-secret projects.

Cultural depictions of drones over the next decades reflected a similar ambivalence, mixing fears about the perils of technology with post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate public distrust of government.

The combat UAV featured in the 1986 Chevy Chase comedy Deal of the Century, for instance, is schizophrenically portrayed as futuristic, cheap, silly, erratic, precise, and deadly to the point of being demonic. More dangerous to domestic tranquility than the enemy, the “Peacemaker” drone is downed by a human pilot before it can destroy Los Angeles (a favorite drone target).

Satires of drones as Cold War excesses joined less sanguine movies of robots-run-amok and what H. Bruce Franklin calls “the alienation embodied by war-making computers,” including WarGames (1983), The Terminator (1984), Runaway (1984), and RoboCop (1987). This genre scorned ballooning defense budgets as breeding killer machines uncontrollable by inept authorities.

This sentiment was also present in Gregg Easterbrook’s 1984 Washington Monthly article “The Army’s $800,000 Model Airplane,” which reported dismaying cost overruns and official ineptitude in the army’s Aquila drone program. With the threat of the U.S.-Soviet war still palpable, Easterbrook suggested the military should contract with private companies then developing smaller “Samurai” drones to neutralize Soviet airpower in the event of “an all-out surprise attack by the Warsaw Pact.”

By 1991, the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse, fictional drones were once again endangering humanity and future Los Angeles in the year’s the biggest movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Earlier that year, real-life UAVs had flown above the Kuwaiti desert in the closing days of the Gulf War. The aptly named Pioneer provided live television surveillance of the battlefield and made history when Iraqis surrendered to one of the unarmed drones—the first time a robot had ever captured humans in war.

Drones Today

Pinpointing the moment when our current fascination over drones began is difficult, but two events in the wake of the 9/11 attacks are milestones.

In a now infamous speech on October 7, 2002, just days before Congress authorized the Iraq War, President Bush raised the specter of robot attacks on the United States for the first time since World War II. Contending that if swift action wasn’t taken Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction “could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” Bush also warned about Iraq’s “growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles” that might attack American cities with chemical and biological weapons.

Within a month of this phantom Iraqi drones alert, the Bush Administration had slain Al-Qaeda operative al-Harithi in Yemen with a Predator drone’s hellfire missiles.

These two events, one phantasmagorical and one genuine, embody much of the current cultural schizophrenia over UAVs.

While the military ramps up its investment in drone fleets, already accounting for over one quarter of all combat aircraft, criticism of UAV warfare has united voices across the political spectrum, from Occupy Wall Street-inspired street artists, to libertarian radio programmers, to conservative Congressman Rand Paul and former Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who question the wisdom, legality, and morality of American drone attacks.

Popular culture shows us equally jumbled impressions. A recent PBS documentary treats UAVs as high tech wonders, while an episode of the TV drama NCIS: Los Angeles posits terrorists-commandeered drones attacking California. The U.S. Air Force uses drones in recruitment ads, with the tagline: “It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day.”

The 2012 video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which raked in $500 million in the first twenty-four hours of its release and billions more since, allows players to fight back against hijacked air force UAVs attacking—yes—Los Angeles. In the equally lucrative world of fast food, Domino’s Pizza recently unveiled its “DomiCopter” drone, a brave new world for home delivery.

Future historians may come to see Obama’s recent statements on drone policy as an important course-correction in today’s frenzied debate over drone warfare, but given the 117-year history of debate over drones it seems unlikely that these inaugural policy forays will have a conclusive, much less immediate, effect.

To fully appreciate this, a person attending the President’s May 23 speech would only have needed to take a brisk, twenty-five minute stroll to the north, to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum where today’s modern military UAVs rub wingtips with the Aerodromes, buzz bombs, and Pioneers from our drone-filled past.