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World War 1 History: The Kettering Bug, the World's First Drone

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Kettering Bug

WWI Kettering Aerial Torpedo (Kettering Bug), taken at the National Museum of the USAF

WWI Kettering Aerial Torpedo (Kettering Bug), taken at the National Museum of the USAF

The American World War I Flying Bomb

After the Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Germans unleashed their V-1 flying bombs against London. By the end of World War II, nearly 10,000 terror weapons had been launched against British targets. They were the first pilotless bombs ever used in war, but the very first such weapon (“unmanned aerial vehicle” in modern military-speak or, more commonly, “drone”) was actually developed more than 25 years earlier during World War I by the Americans. It was called the "Kettering Bug."

Charles Kettering

Charles Kettering (1876 - 1958), Time Magazine cover, 1933

Charles Kettering (1876 - 1958), Time Magazine cover, 1933

Charles F. Kettering

Development of the Kettering Bug, formally called the Kettering Aerial Torpedo, started in April 1917 in Dayton, Ohio after the U.S. Army asked inventor-engineer Charles F. Kettering to design an unmanned flying bomb with a range of 40 miles. Kettering assembled his team, including Orville Wright (of the famous Wright brothers), and got to work.

Papier Mache and Cardboard

What emerged was an ungainly-looking contraption. Its fuselage was constructed of papier-mache reinforced with wood laminates; its smooth 12-foot wings were made of cardboard. Kettering’s invention looked like a propeller-driven torpedo with wings. It took off from a small four-wheeled carriage, which rolled down a portable “aiming” track. It was, however, a technical marvel for its time.

The Kettering Bug, the world's first "cruise missile"

The Kettering Bug, the world's first "cruise missile"


It had a small gyroscope that kept its heading true. Its elevation was controlled by a small aneroid barometer that was so sensitive it was triggered when moving it from the desktop to the floor. An ingenious arrangement of cranks and bellows (taken from player pianos) controlled its flight.

To set flight duration to target, three factors were needed: wind direction, wind speed, and actual distance to the target. Using these figures, the number of engine revolutions necessary to carry the Bug to its destination was calculated and a cam was set. When the engine had made that number of revolutions, the cam dropped, shutting off the engine and releasing the wings. The Bug's torpedo-shaped fuselage, carrying explosives, would then plunge to earth.

A Kettering Bug on the rail cart ready to be launched. Five other Bugs are lined up alongside the rail track resting on sawhorses. The rail track runs from a small building with Dayton-Wright employees standing in the opening observing the Bugs

A Kettering Bug on the rail cart ready to be launched. Five other Bugs are lined up alongside the rail track resting on sawhorses. The rail track runs from a small building with Dayton-Wright employees standing in the opening observing the Bugs

The Bug Had Bugs

After initial tests were highly successful, it was decided to demonstrate the Bug's progress to the military. One of the witnesses, General Arnold, said:

“After a balky start before the distinguished assemblage, it took off abruptly, but instead of maintaining horizontal flight, it started to climb. At about 600 to 800 feet, as if possessed by the devil, it turned over, made Immelmann turns, and, seeming to spot the group of brass hats below, dived on them, scattering them in all directions. This was repeated several times before the ‘Bug’ finally crashed without casualties.”

— General Arnold

Still Needed Tweaking

Adjustments were made and a second demonstration was arranged. The Bug was set to fly at 50 mph and the dignitaries piled into cars to give chase so they could witness it crashing into the ground. Unfortunately, instead of flying straight, it went off course and circled the city of Dayton, cars in pursuit. The main concern wasn't what might happen if it crashed in the city, but whether the enemy might get wind of the Kettering Bug. The entourage searched the vicinity where they thought it had come down and came upon some excited farmers who reported a plane crash-- but they couldn't find the pilot. One of the passengers in the pursuit team was a flying officer in a leather coat and goggles and a quick-thinking colonel explained that he was the pilot who jumped out of the plane in his parachute. General Arnold again: “Our secret was secure. The awed farmers didn’t know that the U. S. Air Corps had no parachutes yet.”

$400 Flying Bomb

Despite these setbacks, the Kettering Bug was approved after adjustments were made. The production model flew at 50 mph and had a maximum range of 75 miles, exceeding the original requirement by 35 miles. The power to fly and operate the controls was provided by a 40-horsepower Ford engine, which cost $50, putting the total price per Bug at only $400. Including 300 lbs of explosive, its total weight was just 600 lbs.

The Kettering Bug's Successor

WWII Memorial under a mounted German V-1 rocket

WWII Memorial under a mounted German V-1 rocket

The War Ends

The government was impressed and ordered 20,000 Kettering Bugs, but only fifty were produced before World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and none were used in combat. When World War II started, serious consideration was given to reactivating and improving the Kettering Bug, but it was decided that even an improved Bug couldn't hit key targets in Germany from England. Lessons from the Kettering Bug, however, were used in the development of the first guided missiles and radio-controlled drones. It is also interesting to note that the German V-1 flying bomb, while so much more advanced, also had a small propeller whose sole purpose was to determine when to shut off the V-1's jet engine and was launched from a ramp.

Kettering's Aerial Torpedo


Questions & Answers

Question: How long did it take to build the Kettering Bug?

Answer: Design and development started in April 1917 (the month the US entered the war) and a successful prototype was delivered in October 1918, a span of 19 months. Only 50 "Bugs" were produced before the war ended on November 11, 1918.

Question: Where can I find who invented the pilotless drones during WW1?

Answer: The Kettering Bug was developed by inventor-engineer Charles F. Kettering and his team in Dayton, Ohio which also included Orville Wright. For more information, check the sources listed at the end of the article.

© 2012 David Hunt


Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on January 31, 2019:

Ingenious mind, but misguided. It is well to remember we should not kill or harm another person. Further, do not train people to kill people. Set your Ideal before beginning a project.

karleigh on January 28, 2019:

this site is really helpful

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 26, 2012:

Thanks much for the comment, The60life. Your comment re "reducing pilot casualties" struck a chord... it seems paradoxical that the military wanted to reduce pilot casualties at the same time they withheld parachutes for fear pilots would jump out of perfectly good planes.

The60life from England on June 26, 2012:

Yet another fascinating hub! All that trial and error. It seems almost a hundred years later that much cutting edge technology for long distance aerial combat/attack is still about who can best take the pilot out of the equation ,and so reduce pilot casualties.Only the quality of the drones - pilotless planes are regularly being reported as having tactical operational importance in areas otherwise difficult to reach by more conventional means - seem to have greatly moved on from the Buster Keaton capers of those early pioneering days. Thanks again. Most informative. Big thumbs-up again. Mike

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 25, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, aethelthryth (hey, I can finally type 'aethelthryth' without constantly peeking at your comment!). Yes, well, the farmers were under the mistaken idea that pilots' lives were more valuable than planes.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on June 25, 2012:

That is funny about the farmers not knowing that pilots didn't have parachutes yet! Parachutes for pilots made sense to farmers but not to WW1 generals, I guess.

I am told that it was hard to shoot down V-1s, but their gyroscopes weren't that good, and Typhoons would fly close to the V-1 and cause enough turbulence to disrupt the gyro so the V-1 would crash.

Maybe I can get some of my sources who educate me on these things to start writing for HubPages.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 24, 2012:

Thanks, Old Albion. Just like an old Benny Hill sketch-- a bunch of generals scattering about while this flying torpedo with wings chases them to the tune of Yakkety Sax.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on June 23, 2012:

The visions of the bug diving on the Brass Hats made me smile. Yes things were certainly 'hit and miss' in those days. Another cracking hub.