A brief history of drones

October 9, 2014, 8:27 PM UTC
contract Armin Harris
Photograph by Stephen Lewis for Fortune

1898

At an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, inventor Nikola Tesla wows audiences with a small unmanned boat that appears to change direction on verbal command. (He’s actually using radio frequencies to switch motors on and off.)

1940

Actor and hobbyist Reginald Denny sells 15,000 radio-controlled target drones to the U.S. military to train anti-aircraft gunners for World War II.

1943

The German military debuts the FX-1400, or “the Fritz X,” a 2,300-pound bomb with four small wings and a radio controller. A breakthrough for guided aerial weapons, it also was the first remotely controlled munition put into operational use.

1944

Photographer David Conover snaps images of Norma Jeane Dougherty—soon to be known as Marilyn Monroe—working at a wartime assembly plant. On her workbench: a half-assembled drone.

1960s

The size and cost of transistors plummet, ushering in an age of radio-controlled products and a generation of tinkerers and enthusiasts.

1982

At the outbreak of hostilities with Syria, Israel outwits Soviet anti-aircraft technology by using a swarm of unmanned aircraft to draw it into revealing its location.

1995

The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator UAV enters service. In the decade following 9/11, the Predator will become the public face of drones.

2010

The Parrot AR Drone, a smartphone-controlled quadcopter for consumers, is introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

2012

Congress requires the FAA to integrate small drones into the national airspace by 2015.

2013

On 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveils an audacious plan: delivery drones and a future service called Prime Air.

2014

As the FAA grants an exemption to film and TV production companies for drone use, producer Jerry Bruckheimer reveals that actor Tom Cruise will star in Top Gun 2 alongside drones.

This story is from the October 27, 2014 issue of Fortune.