July 18, 2019

What Kind of Animal Is a Drone?

“For much of World War I, Sir Phillip Gibbs was one of the few journalists the British War Office permitted to correspond from the Western Front. Gibbs’s mission was to describe, in terms that would be acceptable to government censors, the deteriorating state of a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular among the British public. In this capacity, in September 1916 at the height of the Battle of the Somme, Gibbs found himself tasked with writing about a miracle weapon that would supposedly bring a decisive end to The Great War: the William Foster & Co. Gun Carrier Mark I — or, as we’d now call it, a tank.

The tank was a modern solution to a modern problem. Two years of stalemate — each meter of ground gained came at the cost of 60 or more lives — had pushed Allied leaders to seek a technological “fix” to the logistical morass of trench warfare, something that could plow across trenches and shrug off pepperings of small arms fire. The Mark I, whose designers had, up to that point, been best known for making tractors, was primitive by our standards. It had a top speed of 3.7 miles per hour and caged crews, like canaries, often fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning. But the tank had its intended effect (at least until the Germans made their own) and the War Office promptly ordered the Mark I into mass production.

Gibbs now faced a serious challenge. On the one hand, the Mark I was supposedly a revolutionary machine that, however paradoxically, could usher in peace on treads and metal. At the same time, however, the tank signaled a new era of industrial horrors. How could these competing views, and the futures they augured, be reconciled? One evening, shortly after the Mark I’s debut, Gibbs prowled the lines in welcome silence and happened across a dozen or so Mark 1s, draped and quiet, as if put to bed for the night. In his next report, he likened them to “herds of prehistoric beasts.” Faced with 28 of long tons of lethal steel, he reached for the animal to make sense of what he’d seen.”

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