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.


Get the answer.

We asked what early forerunner of guided missile technology was patented by a famous inventor in 1898, decades before the appearance of widely recognized guided missile weaponry.

The genius in question is none other than Nikola Tesla, radio pioneer and father of the alternating current motor, who received a U.S. patent (No. 613,809) for a radio-controlled naval torpedo in 1898. Called the “telautomaton,” this ancestor of the modern guided missile was actually one of Tesla’s more disappointing failures in a career otherwise marked by staggering successes.

Tesla filed a patent for his “Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles” in 1898, but patent examiners were so incredulous of the device described in the application that they refused to grant the patent until Tesla had demonstrated the telautomaton. At the 1898 Electrical Exhibition in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Tesla unveiled a four-foot-long steel tube that floated in water, self-powered by onboard batteries, which he could control remotely using his (also patent-pending) radio technology.

The design of the radio-controlled boat made allowances for an explosive warhead, underscoring Tesla’s presumed military applications for his invention and foreshadowing the guided munitions of the 20th century. Yet, while patent examiners were sufficiently impressed to grant Tesla his telautomaton patent in 1898 (ironically, two years before granting Tesla’s original radio patent), there was ultimately little military interest in his invention.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the July 11 edition of Geek Trivia, “Date with (incan)destiny.” TechRepublic members counter, Dave the IT Dude, and phalacee all dinged me for declaring the Queen’s Birthday as Australia’s premier fireworks festival, with the latter retorting as thus:

“As a geek residing in Australia, you can imagine my surprise when I saw the Queen’s Birthday listed as the day we set off fireworks… never in the 17 years that I’ve lived here in Perth has there ever been a fireworks display on the Queen’s Birthday… The biggest celebration involving fireworks here in Perth is always Australia Day — January 26. We have the Lotto Skyworks — probably the biggest Aussie Day event in the nation.”

Once again, I confess my ignorance of the festive idiosyncrasies of the former British Empire and humbly beg forgiveness. Thanks for the correction, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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