Modern warfare, with all its high-tech gadgetry, would have seemed like black magic to the technologically inferior warmongers of only a century ago ... or at least that's what we assume. But it turns out that a lot of the stuff that defines the modern battlefield has been around in some form for a lot longer than we think, thanks to murderous geniuses who were decades or centuries ahead of their time.
In the last two decades, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) went from "those flying killbots in the Terminator movies" to "the USA's go-to solution for every international problem." These drones are literally the most futuristic thing in our arsenal, and if you saw some World War II movie that featured them, you'd think you were seeing the work of the laziest screenwriter in history.
But if so, you'd owe them an apology. This is the TDR-1, the Predator drone's badass grandpa:
"You kids today with your guided missiles and your geolocation ... in my day, blowing shit up was a craft."
Developed in the 1940s during a period when the entire world was seeing how much metal they could fling at high velocity toward one another, the TDR-1 was the world's first production UAV that was put into combat. Of course, rather than being flown by some guy on the other side of the world, the TDR-1 was flown by another pilot in a nearby bomber, due to the fact that satellites didn't exist yet. Still, the Navy was so impressed by the idea of a magical pilotless aircraft that they commissioned 5,000 of the things. However, delays led to only 195 being built and shipped off to the Pacific to fight the Japanese.
A typical mission for the TDR-1 consisted of takeoff, a flight to a target, and dropping a few bombs or a torpedo. Then the operator would take the aircraft and give it an ending the Japanese would be proud of: He'd steer it right into the target it was just bombing, because who wants to go through the trouble of landing that shit?
Greg Goebel, via Wikipedia
Besides, it's never too early to start teaching robots who's really in charge.
For several months, the U.S. Navy used these drones to attack various Japanese targets around the Pacific with a success rate of 21 targets destroyed in 37 missions. Although that 57 percent success rate sounds meager, that's a far cry from today's whopping 2 percent success rate. The TDR-1 was cancelled in October 1944 when the Navy decided that it preferred human pilots, or at least that they wanted expensive war machines that didn't get slammed into the side of a building after one use.
Night vision goggles are an iconic part of the modern military outfit, and any war movie or game with a modern setting must include a scene where everything is green and blurry. But although it's only just beginning to come into common use, night vision technology has been with us for a long time -- since World War II, in fact.
Which means that Hitler sex tape you "accidentally" downloaded may actually be legit.
In the early years of the war, it was rumored that Germany had successfully developed night vision technology to mount to their vehicles, a rumor that was probably true until Indiana Jones turned up and destroyed the biblical artifact powering it. Understandably worried by this idea, the United States set their best minds on the task. They then realized that they'd sent all of their best minds into the desert for some reason, and so they turned to their second brightest.
The result of their hard work was the Sniperscope, which consisted primarily of an infra-red "black" searchlight that mounted onto the barrels of the standard-issue rifles of the time.
Along with a battery that looks big enough to power a Terminator.
The light emitted by the spotlight wasn't visible to the naked eye; it worked in conjunction with the scope mounted at the top. During a nighttime firefight, instead of just firing randomly into the dark and hoping to hit something, a soldier could switch his Sniperscope on, peer through the lens, and fire away. It was a game-changing weapon, although you can already see the downside (you have to carry that heavy-ass power supply on your back like a Ghostbuster).
Which is why they were never deployed far from the 11th Chiropractic Division.
Luckily for the bad guys, the Sniperscope wasn't deployed on the battlefield until 1944, but that doesn't mean it didn't kick any ass: During the Okinawa campaign, it proved insanely useful in preventing Japanese saboteurs from infiltrating U.S. bases. Tellingly, although fewer than 500 Sniperscopes were deployed in the region, they accounted for 30 percent of all Japanese small-arms casualties during the first week of the campaign.
The Germans did eventually get a working night vision system on their weapons in 1945. Known as the Zielgerat 1229 but nicknamed Vampir (because the Nazis loved melodrama more than lederhosen and anti-Semitism), it worked in the exact same way as the Sniperscope. However, apart from scant anecdotes about it being used on the Eastern Front, we have no other information about it.
"Let's go with 'Vampir' instead. 'Back Spasm' might be bad for morale."
Austrian Lieutenant Franz von Uchatius had the kind of lofty, unrealistic pipe dream that other folks dismiss as mere fantasy: What if he could somehow rain death down upon his enemies from on high? The reason this was such a silly fantasy is that it was 1849 and planes hadn't been invented yet.
"Go get me some dynamite and a roll of tape; I've got an idea."
But this ambitious dreamer was not going to let that stop him. And so, during Austria's siege on Venice, Uchatius masterminded the first aerial bombing raid using hot air balloons. Positioning several key navy ships offshore, he organized two "aerial torpedo" squadrons. Each squadron consisted of 100 balloons, each armed with a single bomb with a timer. After figuring out the wind currents, Uchatius released these balloons to lazily float over Venice, an attack that must have been as slow as it was terrifying.
Not so nostalgically charming when they're loaded with explosives.
Meanwhile, in Venice, people were presumably going about their normal day when they gazed up at the baffling sight of several balloons blotting out the sky. They probably had a moment to think the whole siege had secretly been a setup for a surprise party before shit started exploding.
The attack itself was a hilarious disaster -- wind blew some of the balloons back toward the Austrians, and others detonated in midair. Curious Venetians came out of their homes, and some even applauded the show, because look at that shit! Still, they surrendered two days later, presumably because it became clear that they were facing an army that was willing to try fucking anything.