A Short History of Gremlins
According to some sources, the word gremlin entered the English language around 1925. The word had been created by British pilots in the latter days of World War I, and was used to account for the inexplicable failure of various aircraft components, including the cockpit instruments, the engine, and the wings and other structural parts. Although the exact derivation is unclear, it seems that the gremlin, a small, generally unpleasant creature, is similar to the “little people” of Irish and Welsh mythology. Webster’s New World Dictionary (3rd College Edition, 1988), defines a gremlin as “a small imaginary creature humorously blamed for the faulty operation of airplanes or the disruption of any procedure.” While the term is in common usage throughout the United States, and even though gremlins have been featured in two recent movies, the history of these mythical creatures, who have been around for nearly seventy five years, has not been traced. This essay provides an overview of the history of gremlins, summarizing their appearance and habits, and describing their symbolic significance.
In its definition of gremlin, the Oxford English Dictionary, cites this supporting passage, taken from Charles Graves’ Thin Blue Line (1941).
“As he flew round, he wished that his instructor had never told him about the Little People—a mythological bunch of good and bad fairies originally invented by the Royal Naval Air Service in the Great War. . . . Those awful little people, the Gremlins, who run up and down the wing with scissors going “snip, snap, snip” made him sweat.”
Their WWI origin is confirmed by W. E. Woosnan Jones, who wrote that
“it was the old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force [of 1918] which first appear to have detected the presence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was to disconcert pupil pilot and experienced pilot alike, and to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble the airman’s life.” (Pattrick, p. 186)
British aviatrix Pauline Gower, in Women with Wings, published in 1938, wrote of her excursions into England’s gremlin country and of her hearing of “the old Air Force legend of the Gremlins,” “weird little creatures who fly about looking for unfortunate pilots who are either lost or in difficulties with the weather” (200). Gower’s account illustrates the basic elements of the early version of the gremlin story:
“Their chief haunts are ravines and the boulder covered tops of hills. They fly about with scissors in hand and try to cut the [bracing] wires on an aeroplane. The pilot hears them coming, snapping their scissors, and does his best to get out of their way. Usually they climb on one wing and the pilot manages to shake them off. . . . [,] only to find that they have clambered onto the tail, the petrol tank, and along the fuselage. Seeing himself thus completely hemmed in by Gremlins, the pilot hunts wildly for a landing ground, but the clouds and mist are all around him (Gremlins almost always attack in bad weather), and he can find no suitable field. . . . Terrified, the miserable pilot flies madly around in circles until at last he gets into a spin and crashes. The Gremlins then fly off content at having slain yet another intruder of their country.” (200)
According to all accounts, gremlins are small, gnome like or elf like in size, and malicious, working physical harm to the aircraft with the intent of rendering it incapable of flight. Gower’s mention of scissors with which gremlins cut bracing wires is a detail appropriate to WWI era aircraft, fabric covered biplanes whose wings were provided necessary stress support by bracing wires and wooden struts. If a number of bracing wires happened to break, the aircraft could be rendered incapable of supporting normal stress loads and could become uncontrollable. The same effects could result if a sufficient area of linen fabric were ripped loose from one of the wings. The early biplanes were such fragile machines that any number of small defects could combine for catastrophic results.
In addition, these early aircraft flew so slowly (75 to 100 miles per hour) that it was not improbable to imagine human like figures walking on the wings or fuselage. For pilots flying in an open cockpit with its attendant noise and wind blast, in bad weather, after many hours of flying, it would not at all be an unlikely effect to imagine that some living thing (necessarily small, not easily seen) was causing the aircraft to behave in an erratic and unsafe manner.
Gower’s account suggests the fundamental symbolic characteristics of gremlins, and indicates their primary psychological significance, as manifestations of human fears of the unreliability of complex technological devices. From the days of WWI, gremlins were depicted as agents of evil, whose sole purpose was to make machinery malfunction, especially in potentially life threatening situations. The gremlin seems to have been a natural and appropriate human reaction, attributing mechanical malfunctions to living agents, agents who become the focus of our fear and anger.
Such an explanation is believable in the sense that we can more easily attribute the malfunction of a machine, which is not supposed to fail, to the quirks associated with irrational human behavior. No one can account for the suddenly bizarre behavior of a human who, for no apparent reason, attacks those around him; but we know that such events occur. Machines, constructed to operate according to a strictly logical cause and effect sequence of actions, are not supposed to act strangely without cause, and our experiences as humans can provide only one reason for mechanical malfunction an aberrant human agent has attacked the machine for no good reason.
The gremlins, according to Gower’s account, attacked flying machines because they had invaded their “country,” a remote area away from normal human activity. Flying is a unique experience that takes humans to new and unusual locations and environments where they experience difficulty in adjusting to the new physical and psychological challenges that accompany the act of flying, reinforcing the often heard statement that “man was not meant to fly.” More centrally, this belief is a representation of the new pilot’s difficulty in believing that the flying machine will really support the pilot in all kinds of operational conditions, a fear that rests on the pilot’s doubts about his own competence. The gremlin myth consists of three basic elements, then: concern about the dependable operation of essential components of the machine; concern about the operator’s basic competence; and concern about the operator’s ability to adapt to the new experiences and environments to which the machine will carry him.
Gremlins, or gremlin-like agents, can be found in virtually every area of technological activity; new machines are said to have “bugs” in them which have to be “worked out”; we have heard about computers susceptible to “viruses”; and we have seen films and read stories in which machines take on lives of their own, seldom for reasons beneficial to human life (the computer HAL in Kubrick’s 2001, the automobile in Stephen King’s Christine). In general, the myth of the gremlin is fostered in our ignorance of scientific principles and the workings of machines, in our lack of confidence in our abilities to manage technological activities, and in our acceptance of the irrationality of human behavior.
It makes sense that gremlins should first have been discovered by personnel in the Royal Naval Flying Service of WWI days, because their flying duties involved long, tiring flights over the North Sea and the English Channel in search of enemy vessels, aircraft, and airships. Essentially flying long range, low level patrols over open sea, the threat of engine failure and the subsequent disappearance at sea was a very real danger to the crews of these flying boats. And because they often flew in cloud and mist, RNAS aircrews experienced conditions in which it was easy to imagine attacks by malicious spirits which could attach themselves to the ship as it flew along at low altitudes and low speeds. Gremlins were not generally observed by Royal Flying Corps pilots in France and Belgium, because their flight missions were shorter and at varying altitudes, full of abrupt maneuvers, usually always conducted in proximity to the front lines.
After WWI gremlin activity apparently declined in England. But gremlins in other forms were noted during the years between the wars; even so staid an aviator as Charles Lindbergh has written that he firmly believed something was present in the cabin of the Spirit of St. Louis as he flew the Atlantic in May of 1927. Although he called them “ghostly presences” and “phantoms,” they were real to him during the flight, real enough that he heard them speaking to him and felt them crowding around him in the cabin.
With the onset of WWII, gremlins once more appeared in force, with an intensity and vigor not previously experienced. Gremlins were especially predominant in reports from the English aviation units in the early months of the war, in 1942 and 1943. One of the first published accounts was that of W. E. Woosnan Jones in the Spectator of January 1, 1943, in which a number of gremlin activities are described. The following is most typical:
“Another favorite trick is to wait until the pilot of a single engine aeroplane is flying over the open sea. The Gremlin then sneaks under the engine cowling and proceeds to tap loudly and alarmingly upon it. The pilot hears this horrible knocking and suffers agonies of mental stress, anticipating every moment that his engine will pack up. Finally, sweating blood, he safely reaches an aerodrome and makes a most urgent report on the matter. The skeptical flight mechanics rev up the engine, which hums like a well behaved sewing machine. Whereupon the abashed pilot crawls shamefacedly away and the Gremlin just laughs himself sick.” (Pattrick, p. 187)
In contrast to malicious versions presented in earlier years, the gremlins of the early WWII years are by and large a forgiving, even helpful lot. They seem to play the game just for laughs, willing to settle for a chuckle instead of a human life. At least that is the impression given by the writers of the period. Correspondent John Saxon Childers, reporting on the activities of the American staffed Eagle Squadron of the RAF, stationed in England prior to American entry into the war, reported numerous amusing incidents in which gremlins made fun of the squadron’s fighter pilots:
Even if they let [the pilot] become airborne in good style, several of them may sit on his tail when he comes in to land and then gleefully wreck a three point landing. They’ll shift the flarepath [field boundary lights] just as a night flier is coming down. They’ll guide a pilot after many weary hours of flying to a dummy airdrome. They’ll jam cannon when a fighter is about to get a Jerry. They’ll hide parachutes and lose spares and play all kinds of tricks; there’s no amount of mischief they won’t do. (281)
One pilot tells Childers that gremlins are “never malicious, and so far as I know,” he says, “there’s no record of any one ever having suffered bodily harm at their hands” (281). One WAAF tells Childers that gremlins are “wonderful to the pilots, and watch out for them and guard them” (282). Another WAAF tells the story of how the gremlins were supposed to have held the wing in place on a damaged RAF bomber until it was able to land safely (286). It seems clear that a beneficent view of gremlins was appropriate in the dark days of 1942 and 1943, when the Allies had little to feel good about in the events of the war. To imagine gremlins holding wings on, however, when they had been previously credited with trying to remove them, shows the degree to which English citizens felt the need for miracles of any kind.
The Americans supported the Gremlin myth even more strongly than the British. Inspired by reports of gremlins in the American press in the fall of 1942, Irwin Shapiro wrote a poetic version of gremlins who assist an American pilot, Lieutenant Sam Oggins, flying in England. Scoffing at the existence of gremlins, he becomes a believer when he sees a multitude of them after he is forced to land his disabled aircraft on German soil. Expressing his belief that they might be working for the enemy, he is told:
And that other fat ninny
now, what is his name? . . .
Oh yes Mussolini
for all of their strutting
and dramatic poses—”
“Phoo o o o!” howled the Gremlins,
and they all held their noses.
And then they repeated:
“We’ve got to have fun!
With the Nazis and Fascists,
we’d have less than none!
That’s why we Gremlins,
of all occupations,
stand solidly by
the United Nations!”
Once having made a believer of Lieutenant Oggins, they repair his plane and make it airworthy again, but now as a glider, which gains altitude through the thermal effects of the hot air generated by the Fuehrer, who happens to be giving a speech in the vicinity. About to depart the area on a return flight to England, Oggins spots a flight of German fighters, which he attacks:
And spiralling upwards on the roaring hot draft,
Sam knocked them to blazes with the prow of his craft
so that just as Der Fuehrer was quoting Mein Kampf,
down fell the wreckage with a collossal bumpf,
and der furious Fuehrer fell back on his rumpf,
while his pals on the platform rushed helter skelter,
all searching in vain for some sort of shelter.
Older and wiser, Sam Oggins continues to fly for the Allies,
And, knowing the Gremlins will come to his aid,
he calmly goes out on raid after raid
to speed the glad, happy day, when once again
there’ll be fun everywhere, for both Gremlins and men.
The anatomy of gremlins is at its most complete in these early years of the war; Shapiro’s poem (again drawing on press accounts) describes no less than nine kinds of gremlins, including sword nosed gremlins, general utility gremlins, hole boring gremlins, water spurt gremlins, the hoppersnatch, spandules, fifinellas (the female gremlin), and widgets (young gremlins).
This classification scheme is confirmed by Roald Dahl, in his version of the story published with pictures by the Walt Disney studio. Gremlins are typically described as about one foot in height (anything larger would be unable to crawl into the various corners and indentations on aircraft), usually wearing a top hat (or a bowler) and various kinds of appropriate footwear (the most common type consisting of shoes with suction cups on them).
The Walt Disney version of the gremlins, also published in 1943, was no less optimistic, and almost as humorous, as the Shapiro story. Somehow the Walt Disney studio came in contact with Roald Dahl, an officer who had been assigned duty in the United States after receiving disabling wounds while flying fighter aircraft with the RAF in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Encouraged to try his hand at writing by C. S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower books, Dahl began writing short stories about his flying experiences; some were published first in the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal and other publications. These were collected after the war in a volume entitled Over to You. Initially the Walt Disney studio intended to produce a movie of the gremlins assisting the RAF, but the movie never materialized, and the studio issued a children’s book containing many detailed color illustrations.
The Dahl/Disney story is similar to the Shapiro poem; in it an RAF pilot first witnesses the gremlins boring holes in his wing and then in his engine cowling while engaging in combat with a German bomber. The pilot, Gus, lands safely and informs his rescuers that the damage was caused not by the Germans but by gremlins. Although he is a believer in the existence of gremlins, who continue to afflict his skeptical fellow pilots, Gus continues to fly. After being wounded severely by a German gunner, Gus is almost killed when he crash lands, as a result of the actions of the gremlins.
“He saw exactly what happened. He saw the gremlins in their thousands lined up all around the edge of the landing field, and he saw them watching him and waiting their chance. He saw them, at the last moment, when it was too late to do anything about it, pick up the complete field and carry it away on their shoulders, running faster than the wind. Because they were all athletic types, they wore little white running shorts with a blue stripe down one side; . . . . They ran for a hundred yards and stopped, and the chief athletic gremlin said,
“Mind your toes, down she goes. Mind your toes, down she goes. One two three, down!” And they dropped it and ran away into a near by wood.
When Gus landed, the runway was still a hundred yards away.” (32)
This account contains the typical Dahl hallmarks: a touch of humor, a touch of viciousness, an absurd song. Although the gremlins are eventually won over to assisting the RAF cause, it is not an easy achievement, and requires some trickery and manipulation on the part of the RAF pilots. A more somber version of Dahl’s vision of the gremlins appeared in 1948, in his novel Some Time Never, in which gremlins witness an atomic war and inherit a world devoid of human life, until they, too, disappear.
According to Dahl’s Some Time Never, the gremlins disappeared after the Battle of Britain, a statement that is historically accurate, for after 1943, the gremlins essentially disappear from accounts of aerial action for the remainder of the war. Nor do they reappear in later wars, such as the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Somehow other theaters of action and other wars did not offer appropriate opportunities for gremlins to appear; they are more at home in the northern European environment of bogs and dark forests, like other mythic inhabitants of the woods and swamps: elves, goblins, leprechauns, the Hobbit, Grendel. Another more likely reason for the gradual disappearance of gremlins was the increasing technological capabilities of modern aircraft, which were engineered with greater reliability.
If the gremlins failed to appear in Vietnam, however, they were supplanted by other, more vicious beings, such as the Doom Pussy, the mascot of the 13th Bomb Squadron, which flew night bombing missions over North Vietnam; the squadron patch of the unit depicted
“an embroidered head of a big yellow cat with pointed ears and a black patch over her right eye. The left eye glowed an evil green and clenched in her jaws was a twin engine aircraft [B 57, the aircraft of the 13th Bomb Squadron]. . . . In green letters around the border was emblazoned . . . “I have flown into the jaws of the cat of death.” American fliers simply say: “I have seen the Doom Pussy.” There were tall tales of the Puss of Doom scratching on the canopy of the night fliers’ planes to be let in.” (43)
The gremlins have not been entirely forgotten since World War II, however; Richard Matheson’s short story, “Nightmare at Twenty Thousand Feet” describes the unusual experiences of a man named Wilson who happens to see a strange kind of beast affixed to the wing of an airliner flying in storm clouds doing serious damage—so Wilson believes—to the aircraft. In an attempt to destroy the beast on the wing Wilson fires a pistol at it; he is eventually carried off the aircraft in a sedated condition fully believing he has saved the aircraft and its passengers from destruction. This story served as the basis for a 1963 Twilight Zone television series episode, starring William Shatner as the frantic Wilson. A 1983 movie, Twilight Zone: The Movie, repeated the episode, this time featuring John Lithgow as the hysterical passenger.
Recently there appeared another movie version of the myth, Stephen Spielberg’s film, Gremlins (1984). In Spielberg’s version, gremlins are malicious transformations of the usually harmless “Mog wai,” or “gizmo,” as they are also called. The “gizmo” is a friendly, small version of a singing teddy bear, until it is neglected or mistreated. In the movie, inventor Brad Peltzer finds a “mog wai” in a basement shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown section and brings it home as a Christmas present for his son William.
Peltzer, who claims that he has “fantastic ideas for a fantastic world” and makes “the illogical logical,” is told that “with the mog wai comes much responsibility,” and he is given three important rules he must follow in his care of the mog wai: do not expose it to bright light, especially sunlight; do not get water on it; and do not, under any condition, feed it after midnight. Peltzer’s son William, a well meaning sort, violates all three rules, naturally (but never intentionally). He discovers that bright light will kill it, water will cause it to form offspring, and feeding it after midnight will cause it to become transformed into a malicious and energetic gremlin. As a result of William’s mistakes, hundreds of gremlins are let loose on his unsuspecting home town and nearly destroy it in a night of chaos and rampage before he is able to destroy them. At the conclusion of the film, the Chinese gentleman who initially possessed the mog wai returns to reclaim it, telling the Peltzer family that “you do with mog wai what your society does with all of nature’s gifts.”
The point of Spielberg’s entertaining morality play seems evident; in our society of inventors and entrepreneurs, we forget to take care of “nature’s gifts,” and in doing so, run the risk of seeing natural resources used wastefully and with destructive effects, causing positive daydreams to be turned into terrible nightmares. In Spielberg’s vision, the gremlins represent the products of our mismanagement and neglect of natural gifts; they are manifestations of the unhappy results of our pursuit of foolish ends (the quest for “fantastic ideas in a fantastic world,” “making the illogical logical”). Spielberg’s gremlins are directly linked to our misappropriation of natural potential. Spielberg’s gremlins are thus associated more with our abuse of technological potential than with our fear or distrust of it.
The common threads in the fundamental visions of gremlins or gremlin like apparitions (excepting Spielberg’s) are these: they are seen by individuals in isolation, by individuals under stress or suffering from fear, in an environment controlled by technological devices (especially aircraft), in potentially life threatening conditions, and in conditions in which the individual feels powerless or helpless. The greater the sense of powerlessness, the greater the sense of fear, and the greater or more complex the technological device, the greater the terror. But in times of international distress, like the early years of World War II, gremlins can be seen as agents capable of persuasion to acts of goodness and rightness. Gremlins seem to be manifestations of our fears of unknown technology in time of peace but which offer promise of deliverance in time of war. The gremlin is the beast of technology that can be made manageable and even cooperative if the time requires and clear-thinking human efforts are made.
One question remains: why should gremlins have been associated primarily with aircraft rather than with other representations of twentieth century technology? Perhaps the answer can be found in the fact that, even in its earliest, most primitive form, the aircraft was a vehicle that depended entirely on advanced technological components to sustain itself in motion. Power source, airframe, wings, instrumentation, electrical and hydraulic systems were all required to be in perfect operating order if the pilot were to be successful in flying it. By the end of World War I it had developed into the central symbol of twentieth century technology, and remains so today in spite of the appearance of other competitors, like the automobile, the nuclear bomb, or the computer.
In addition, it provided the means whereby its operator, the pilot, could venture into altitudes and areas of the globe that had never before been explored. And with venture came risk, and with risk came fear, and the hazards of flight might well be best summed up in the damages gremlins were supposedly capable of creating. Of this century’s technological creations, only the aircraft (and its offspring, the space shuttle) is capable of carrying a human operator off the ground and into an environment in which the operator is completely dependent on the proper functioning of technological components and the individual’s confidence in managing those components.
So it is particularly appropriate that we should have imagined the existence of gremlins who, at least according to the Roald Dahl version of the legend, decided to harrass humans for having disrupted their lives. Gremlins were happily living underground, like the other little people of the world goblins and trolls and pixies until men came and cut down trees to make aircraft factories:
“We will follow those big tin birds wherever they go,” vowed the leader [of the gremlins], and he spoke for them all, “to get revenge for the loss of our homes. We will make mischief for them, and we will harry and tease the men who fly them, until we obtain some satisfaction for the harm that has been done to us.” (The Gremlins, 15)
Thus are the myths of the earth transferred into the myths of the air as the ego of technology develops the id of the gremlin.
James Saxon Childers, War Eagles: The Story of the Eagle Squadron (New York: Appleton Century, 1943). Contains a one chapter discussion of gremlins.
Roald Dahl, The Gremlins (New York: Random House, 1943). The Roald Dahl story with illustrations by the Walt Disney studio.
Roald Dahl, Some Time Never (Scribners, 1948). A more pessimistic gremlin story set at the end of World War II.
Pauline Gower, Women with Wings (London: John Long, 1938). Contains a discussion of gremlins.
William Pattrick, ed, Mysterious Air Stories (London: W. H. Allen, 1986). Contains several references to stories of gremlins, including “Gremlins,” by W. E. Woosnan Jones, which first appeared in the Spectator of 1 January 1943, and “Nightmare at Twenty Thousand Feet,” by Richard Matheson, the story which served as the basis of the original television Twilight Zone episode starring William Shatner.
Irwin Shapiro, The Gremlins of Lieut. Oggins (New York: Julian Messner, n. d. ). Illustrated poetic version of good and ill effects of gremlins in World War II.
Bob Stevens, More “There I Was…” (Fallbrook CA: Aero, 1974). Contains an illustration of gremlins attacking a single engine WWII fighter aircraft.