How a 1974 sci-fi novel for teens eerily predicted the rise of personal drones

Or, what I learned from “Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy”

Do you want to read a document that neatly specs out the future of personal drones — including the weird, fun, and creepy ways they’ll change society? I’ve got a book for you to read.

It was written in 1974. It was a sci-fi novel aimed at teenage kids. It is:

Forty years ago, it nailed everything we’re arguing today about personal drones, privacy, and the danger of government overreach.

(Before we go any further, take a moment to marvel at this gorgeous cover design. The color scheme! The cross-hatched drawings! That font, my god, what is going on there? They do not make covers like this anymore.)

The Danny Dunn series started in the 1950s, written by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams. They covered the adventures of the eponymous teenager — who was obsessed with science and engineering — and his friends Irene (herself a physics and biology prodigy) and comic-relief Joe, an artsy type. Danny’s father was dead, so Danny lived with his mother at the home of Professor Bullfinch, a kindly Ben-Franklin-esque scientist whose inventions Danny and his friends inevitably messed with: Antigravity paint, a time machine, a heat ray. A cheesy premise, but Abrashkin and Williams were superb writers who deeply respected the intelligence of the kids reading their books. Much of their basic science was rock solid, and they frequently wove in a liberal moral message: Be curious, fight for fair play and justice, and think for yourself.

Which brings us the fascinating ethical landscape of Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy. It begins with Danny and his friends asking the Professor whether anyone could become invisible and spy on others. The Professor argues that physics probably wouldn’t allow true invisibility. But he offers a second, more pragmatic option:

Basically, he imagines a drone. Then he goes on to build one.

(I’m about to give major spoilers for this book, so on the rare chance that you’re about to buy an out-of-print copy on eBay, stop reading now!)

The drone.

A few weeks after the chat about invisibility, the Professor calls the three kids over to his lab. Surprise! He’s invented the device he envisioned. Thanks to a new semiconductor he accidentally discovered, he has been able to create the tiniest cameras, sensors and flight-control switches that have ever existed. He’s packed them into a “sensory probe” shaped like a tiny dragonfly, which the pilot can fly as far as 2,500 yards away, remotely powered by microwave.

The helmet and control gloves.

You control the drone using a keyboard box, a thoroughly funky virtual-reality helmet, and what look like a pair of souped up Nintendo Power Gloves. With head inside the hemet, the pilot sees what the dragonfly sees, and even feels what the dragonfly feels via haptic feedback in the gloves. (This is the only automagical part of the technical specs. Up until the haptic-feedback stuff, the drone’s tech was surprisingly plausible and non-bonkers.)

The kids immediately ask to give it a try, and the Professor figures hey — 1970s teenagers piloting the world’s first remote-controlled spy drone! What could possibly go wrong? So Irene straps on the controls, which in the hands of the book’s fabulous illustrator, looks completely metal:

I want a t-shirt with this image on it.

Irene zooms the drone around the lab, and then, being super interested in biology, she starts following a robin to its nest, where she gets a breathtaking closeup view of it feeding its children. “She could even see the tiny pulse throbbing in his breast, and she remembered that birds have a very high temperature and that their hearts beat as fast as ten times a second.” (Parents, there is a teachable moment like this on almost every page.)

In essence, Irene discovers something that environmentalists are realizing today: That small personal drones are great for observing the natural world. Later on, Danny suggests that drones would also be perfect for exploring other planets — something that NASA scientists are now pondering for Mars’ lower atmosphere. These are the upsides of personal drones that we’re currently exploring in today’s world. Drones are, as I recently argued in Smithsonian magazine, creating a renaissance in the aesthetics of everyday photography, in the same way that the handheld, portable Kodak camera reinvented picture-taking in the 19th century. New tools create new aesthetics.

Preparing for his drone flight.

But new tools also create new social collisions.

The freaky privacy implications of drones raise their serpentine heads when Danny takes the controls. He flies around the neighborhood, spots his mother running an errand, and decides, mischievously, to follow her. His sneaky delight turns sour when he discovers she’s buying some lemons to make a surprise pie for him and his friends. “It’s not a surprise any more,” he realizes. Later in his flight, he flies the drone into his school and finds the local bully inside, secretly planning to cheat in the next day’s spelling bee. Busted!

The use of a drone for a good purpose — exposing unfairness, right? Except as the Professor points out, Danny discovered the nefarious activity by invading someone’s privacy. He cannot go inform on someone by using evidence he obtained by illicit voyeurism. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, though, is how it predicts the overreach of military and law enforcement. Halfway through the novel, the military shows up — this guy, “General Gruntle”:

Realizing the drone would make a perfect spy machine, General Gruntle attempts seize the device, which is nicknamed “Isit.” Professor Bullfinch objects, arguing that the drone is his private property, and the government can’t simply walk off with it. He and the general argue, and what transpires is such a superb Platonic dialogue about technology and power that I’m going to quote it at length:

General Gruntle controlled himself with an effort, he said, a voice just a little less than a bellow, “You don’t seem to understand the importance of this thing to the national defense. You have invented a weapon which will make the army supreme in espionage. Just think of the uses for it! It’s a perfect machine for spying. It can be used to penetrate all enemy defenses and with a few modifications could be used to blow up ammunition dumps, ferret out enemy secrets, or even assassinate enemy leaders.”
He paused, and another idea struck him. “Even more important, just think of all those people right here at home don’t approve of some of the things we want to do. With a few thousand of these machines, we could keep an eye on any such disloyal elements. Why, no one could do or say a thing that we wouldn’t know about. It would put us in the driver seat, that’s what it would do. It’s your patriotic duty to turn things over to me.”
The Professor scratched his nose thoughtfully with his pipe stem. “Please calm down, General,” he said. “I admit that what you say puts a different light on my invention. I never thought of it as a weapon. It’s true, it might have some uses that way. But even more to the point, I certainly never thought of it as a way someone could spy on American citizens. That seems to me in violation of our right to privacy.”
“That’s not what I meant — “ General Gruntle began.
“Perhaps Isit would be a valuable weapon,” the Professor went on, as if the other hadn’t spoken. “But what you say makes me realize how dangerous it would be if it fell into the wrong hands. I don’t necessarily mean you. I mean someone — anyone — who wanted to find out what everyone was thinking and doing so that he could have the power to control us all. It’s just because I am patriotic but I see how bad that sort of thing could be. Surely, you can see it, too, General?”
General Gruntle opened his mouth several times before he could get any words it. Then he roared, “Rubbish! Ridiculous! You talk like one of those long-haired, wild-eyed, dreamy idealists. Come down to earth, man! I tell you it’s your duty to give up the invisibility machine.”

When I read this, I still get little chills of civil-libertarian delight. “It’s because I am patriotic that I object to domestic spying.” Given how some of today’s school boards have been begun prissily banning books that challenge the surveillance status quo (like Cory Doctorow’s terrific Little Brother), I’m stunned and delighted that books like this were floating around elementary-school libraries in the 70s. The professor’s stance seems so radical.

But it’s not. It’s only in context of our benumbed modern political culture — where, post-Snowden, Congress knows clearly the extent of domestic spying, yet does virtually nothing about it — that the Professor’s speech comes across as radical, instead of merely sane. Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy was published in 1974, which means Abrashkin and Williams wrote it while watching Watergate unfold on their TV screens, and in the shadow of the McCarthy inquisitions. They likely had no trouble imagining what would happen if powerful interests got their hands on drone spy gear.

Maybe kids ought to be reading this book now.

Anyway, the tl;dr is that the Professor refuses to hand over the drone, so the General puts him and Danny under house arrest, while he petitions the Pentagon for permission to abscond with it. But the kids and the Professor disobey orders, and they take extreme measures: To prevent the military from possessing such powerful technology, they set the lab on fire, destroying not only the drone but the plans explaining how to build another one.

Bullfinch concludes the book with a soliloquy on what is, essentially, the precautionary principle:

“We tend to jump into things without thinking … there’s not much excuse, for instance, for people who build atomic reactor plants before they have worked out the problems of waste disposal for radioactive materials. We used DDT for years without first carefully studying its effects on our ecology, and found out its dangers almost too late. We have hurried into all sorts of technological improvements and then found later that we were poisoning our water supply. All I’m asking for … is a breathing space for the invisibility simulator until we determine how to control the invention and who is to control it.”

This itself is a powerful speech. But it also suggests the gnarly difficulties of applying the precautionary principle. Society, of course, has a strong interest in regulating and studying new technologies, so they don’t outgas externalized costs onto society at large. But it’s not always easy to predict how a technology will shake out, and the threats we fear in the short run may be misplaced. The Professor rightly points out the danger of dealing with spent nuclear-plant fuel, but in 1974 the authors couldn’t yet know about global warming and C02-emitting coal plants — problems that might make radioactive-waste containment seem small in comparison.

Overall, though, Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy was shockingly accurate in its foresight about the drone debate. It reminds us that if you want to understand the future, the best place to go may not be newspapers, white papers, or industry blogs. It’s young-adult science-fiction.

(Coda: I’m not generally a nostalgic about how things were better back in the day. But one thing that has dramatically gotten worse? Driving society every closer to the cliffs of barbarism? Children’s book design.

You can see the collapse beginning as early as 1975, when they issued Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy in paperback. Here’s what they came up with:

I can’t even.

I’ll give them some points for psychedelia … but in every other way this cover is an insult to the human instinct for art, joy, and life.)