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.


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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...

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