Norma Jeane and the Age of Drones

It may be a rather dubious legacy, but no history of drone technology is complete without that famous photo of a young Norma Jeane Dougherty on the Radioplane factory floor. She is now gracing the cover of the Summer 2020 issue of American Heritage’s Invention & Technology magazine (digital only), with Michael J. Boyle’s article, ‘The Age of the Drone,’ featured inside. (Although Marilyn would later credit her stardom to the support of US troops in Korea, in her final years she was firmly opposed to the use of nuclear weapons – see here.)

“The growing sophistication of radio technology led to the emergence of a hobbyist community devoted to tiny, radio-controlled planes. Among these hobbyists was Reginald Denny, a British émigré to the United States. Denny began his career as B-list Hollywood actor in silent films during the 1920s and continued to act sporadically until the 1960s. After founding a company in Van Nuys, California, in 1934, Denny and his collaborators came up with a prototype radio-controlled plane — nicknamed the Dennymite — which attracted the interest of the US Air Corps (later the US Air Force). In 1940, he successfully pitched the aircraft to the US Army, which agreed to buy fifty for target practice. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the air force and navy also expressed an interest and that number increased to a planned 15,000 drones.

The Radioplane Models had a wingspan of nearly 12 feet, weighed 130 pounds, and later models could fly as much as 140 miles per hour. Because of the insatiable needs of the military service during World War II, thousands of Radioplane models were quickly constructed and put into service, but never anything close to the numbers the military originally planned.

This effort drew the interest of Captain Ronald Reagan of the US Army’s First Motion Picture unit based in Culver City, California. Recognizing a good story that would aid the war effort, Reagan assigned Private David Conover to take pictures of workers on the shop floor. Conover spotted a beautiful, brown-haired woman named Norma Jean Dougherty whom he thought had potential as a model. Dougherty — who later dyed her hair blond and became known as Marilyn Monroe — was first photographed as a young model smiling with a Radioplane propeller.”

Thanks to Fabienne and Marco