In honor of Nikola Telsa’s 158th Birthday today, here is a little history of The Origins of Radio Control and how Telsa invented the worlds first drone for the US Navy.
Republished from a 2007 article I wrote for the the Monmouth Model Airplane Club monthly Newsletter.
The Origins of Radio Control
Today it is easy to pick up a Radio Control (RC) transmitter and expect perfect operation and control of a model airplane. It was not always like that and some RC pilots remember when they had to build their own radio systems. Radio control has a long history that started with the origins of radio itself.
Last month in our MMAC Puzzler we asked: Who invented the first radio control vehicle and what was the vehicle or vessel?
The answer: Nikola Telsa in 1898 and the vessel was a boat.
Nikola Tesla is known for many inventions; most notably the introduction of Alternating Current (A/C) that powers our homes today. Most people do not know that Nikola Tesla, not Marconi, was the inventor of the radio. Even today this is highly debated and in 1943 the US Supreme Court officially credited Nikola Tesla as being the inventor of the radio. In 1893 Nikola Tesla demonstrated his radio transmission apparatus and over the next several years he continued to make advances in radio. In 1898 he demonstrated the power of radio control. Nikola built two small radio controlled boats and in November 1898 demonstrated their operation to the public at New York City’s old Madison Square Garden.
Nikola actually called his invention teleautomation, not radio control. Nikola was granted US patent 613,809 for Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles. Nikola’s radio control demonstration was five years before the 1903 Wright Brothers first heavier-than-air human flight. Nineteen years later, in 1917, Archibald Low would be the first to successfully use radio control on an aircraft. Radio control went on through the twenties, thirties and forties as primarily a home brew application. In the 1950s commercial application of radio control for industrial and hobby use began.
However, up through the 1960s, the high cost of commercial radio control equipment meant that many hobbyists would continue to build their own radio control systems. Along the way there would be many milestones that advanced radio control for commercial and hobby applications. These milestones go beyond the scope of our discussion here. I am sure Nikola had fun with his invention, but for Nikola this was not a hobby. Nikola was a professional engineer and inventor. Nikola was actually hoping to sell his invention to the US Navy as an unmanned weapon system and his “boat” was more of a radio controlled surface torpedo. Unfortunately, like many other inventions, the US Navy did not immediately see the value of such a device. Today, the US Armed Forces have adopted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as part of their weapon systems. In fact, a recent US Navy commercial touts how the US Navy is “unmanning the front- lines of warfare.” The TV commercial shows sailors and soldiers operating UAVs and radio controlled vehicles. I am glad they finally adopted Nikola Tesla’s technology, even if it only took a hundred or so years.
I am also glad that all of us can enjoy radio control for our hobbies. Thank you Nikola Tesla.
…and Happy 158th Birthday!
For more information on Nikola Tesla:
Patent Drawings: http://www.pat2pdf.org/patents/pat0613809.pdf
Photo Courtesy: Nikola Tesla—From web site of Nikola Tesla Museum (http://www.tesla- museum.org/)
MMAC Photo—Dick Sarpolus