After Hours

Geek Trivia: Fighting fire with wireless

What early forerunner of guided missile technology was patented by a famous inventor in 1898?
Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is saddled with some distracting project management responsibilities this week, so he reached way back into the archives for this Classic Geek, which originally ran on Sept. 24, 2003.

In some respects, the birth of the American space program, and specifically the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was the side effect of a quest for a superior guided missile. Prior to World War II, many considered missiles rudimentary scientific sideshows of little strategic importance when compared to the relative precision, reliability, and cost-effectiveness of artillery and aircraft-delivered bombs.

While only marginally qualifying as guided missiles, the German V-1 and V-2 rockets fired against London in WWII changed this thinking. If crude missiles carrying crude bombs could be a credible threat, imagine what a sophisticated missile carrying a nuclear explosive could do.

The U.S. Army and several auxiliary research groups began pursuing guided missile development immediately after the war, but the appearance of Sputnik in 1957 upped the stakes in the guided missile front of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. The Soviets had demonstrated the ability to use guided missile technology to place a working radio transmitter into orbit -- could nuclear weaponry delivered by missile be far behind?

NASA began operations 362 days after the Soviets placed Sputnik into orbit, absorbing into it virtually every U.S. agency involved in guided missile development. Though NASA would be pursuing largely nonmilitary technology, its scientific discoveries could be easily adapted to military purposes.

One could argue that the widespread public awareness of guided missile and rocket technology began during this era of Cold War technological showdowns, but the idea of a guided missile began much earlier. In fact, one of the foremost inventors of the late 19th century and father of some of the most revolutionary technology in human history developed an early forerunner of guided missile weaponry, which he patented in 1898.

WHAT EARLY FORERUNNER OF GUIDED MISSILE TECHNOLOGY WAS PATENTED BY A FAMOUS INVENTOR IN 1898?

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

10 comments
john.lovejoy
john.lovejoy

In the Australian Capital Territory, Fireworks are a feature of the Queen's Birthday weekend. Ordinary people can legally purchase quantities of explosive devices and set them off that weekend.

bigrobbee
bigrobbee

but I don't know any where else that shoots off fireworks for Queens Birthday.

david_heath
david_heath

as far as I know, ACT is the only place where personal fireworks are permitted, and I hear stories that even there, the days are numbered - too many teenagers (male, of course!) damaging themselves and others. The reason why they chose Queen's Birthday? Middle of winter - hopefully the countryside is wet enough to avoid major bushfires. Regarding major public displays, most cities have some kind of New Years Eve display (Sydney's is probably the best known) while Perth prefers to celebrate Australia Day (January 26th).

gfisher
gfisher

Not a quibble, but can a radio controlled toy boat REALLY be considered a close relative to a guided missile? From the photo (http://www.divus.cz/images/umelec/tes07.jpg) it's questionable the Telautomaton could even function in three dimensions -- I'd guess its first dive would be its last.

vince
vince

I guess this statement could be akin to stating that the invention of the wheel was not a precursor to automobiles. Without Tesla's work, who knows where the technology would be as of right now. Personally, I'd find it pretty impressive that in 1898, there was a radio controlled ANYTHING that worked. Even if it was a "toy boat" that just happened to have a specific area to hold an explosive charge. Ok, maybe it's not so impressive...

gfhavewala
gfhavewala

Keep in mind that we are talking about a genius who was way ahead of his time. Remember the year - 1898!!! Just imagine -- if the so called 'toy boat' had actually been put to use, even without submerging, would the enemy (circa 1898) have known what hit them when the explosive 'toy' rammed into the hull? No way!!!

MyLittleMansAnIdiot
MyLittleMansAnIdiot

The technology that's used to control the boat in question is where the relation can be made, not the working prototype. Tesla was simply attepting to display the ability to remotely control a vessel that could then be detonated. The application of the technolgy to three dimension is relatively simple compared to actually getting it working in two dimensions in the first place. I'd be arguing that this was far from one of his most disappointing failures, the Tesla Coil (the invention he's most widely known for) would have to take the crown there. He invented it as a means to transfer electricity wirelessly, it just ended up as little more than a decoration for laboratories in old movies.