A Brief History Of ‘Drone’

In the early 1930s, Reginald Denny, an English actor living in Los Angeles, stumbled upon a young boy flying a rubber band-powered airplane. After attempting to help the boy by adjusting the rubber and control surfaces, the plane spun into the ground. Denny promised he would build another plane for the boy, and wrote to a New York model manufacturer for a kit. This first model airplane kit grew into his own hobby shop on Hollywood Boulevard, frequented by Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

The business blossomed into Radioplane Co. Inc., where Denny designed and built the first remote controlled military aircraft used by the United States. In 1944, Captain Ronald Reagan of the Army Air Forces’ Motion Picture unit wanted some film of these new flying targets and sent photographer David Conover to the Radioplane factory at the Van Nuys airport. There, Conover met Norma Jeane Dougherty and convinced her to go into modeling. She would later be known as Marilyn Monroe. The nexus of all American culture from 1930 to 1960 was a hobby shop that smelled of balsa sawdust and airplane glue. That hobby shop is now a 7-Eleven just off the 101 freeway.

Science historian James Burke had a TV wonderful show in the early 90s – Connections – where the previous paragraphs would be par for the course. Unfortunately, the timbre of public discourse has changed in the last twenty years and the worldwide revolution in communications allowing people to instantaneously exchange ideas has only led to people instantaneously exchanging opinions. The story of how the Dutch East India Company led to the rubber band led to Jimmy Stewart led to remote control led to Ronald Reagan led to Death of a Salesman has a modern fault: I’d have to use the word ‘drone’.

The word ‘propaganda’ only gained its negative connotation the late 1930s – it’s now ‘public relations’. The phrase ‘global warming’ doesn’t work with idiots in winter, so now it’s called ‘climate change’. Likewise, quadcopter pilots don’t want anyone to think their flying machine can rain hellfire missiles down on a neighborhood, so ‘drone’ is verboten. The preferred term is quadcopters, tricopters, multicopters, flying wings, fixed-wing remote-controlled vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, or toys.

I’m slightly annoyed by this and by the reminder I kindly get in my inbox every time I use the dreaded d-word. The etymology of the word ‘drone’ has nothing to do with spying, firing missiles into hospitals, or illegally killing American civilians. People like to argue, though, and I need something to point to when someone complains about my misuse of the word ‘drone’. Instead of an article on Hollywood starlets, the first remote control systems, and model aviation, you get an article on the etymology of a word. You have no one else to blame but yourself, Internet.

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