One of the most often encountered and yet least understood of the fairies which inhabit the same everyday world as humans is the Gremlin. Folklorists have shown little enthusiasm for documenting the Gremlin, possibly due to its contemporary nature. They are sufficiently well known, however, to be found in standard references. Webster, for example, defines them as “impish foot high gnomes reported by airmen as interfering with and disordering equipment such as motors, instruments, machine guns”. The Dictionary of Folklore defines them as “any airborne supernatural being (spirit, demon, imp) whose function is to cause pilots and air-crew (especially military) trouble and inconvenience”. A more general description is found in the Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were, where they are defined as spirits associated with tools and machinery.
In early stories concerning these creatures, they were depicted as craftsmen, rather like the Dwarfs. The “Shoemaker Elves”, who used the tools and technology of the time to help poor artisans were probably Gremlins. Contemporary myths, on the other hand, generally portray their destructive side, presenting them more as imps or devils. Unlike devils, however, they are not wholly malign and in fact were once considered helpful to man.
This was particularly true for craftsmen and inventors, who found that the Wee Mechanics have the ability to make tools work more efficiently and are credited with assisting in the invention of the steam engine and helping Ben Franklin in his studies of lightning. It is believed that they turned against man, or at least became disillusioned, when denied recognition for their contributions.
The first notice of Gremlins, as such, took place amongst aviators. This is not surprising as malfunctions in an aircraft often have disastrous results, and unexplained problems become a matter of some discourse. The first obvious reference to them was in the British newspaper “The Spectator” which wrote that “the old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 appear to have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was…to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble an airman’s life.”
The word ‘Gremlin’ is claimed by Brew’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable to have been first coined by a Squadron of Bomber Command serving on the North West Frontier in India in 1939. This squadron began to have numerous difficulties with its aircraft, the cause of which was duly placed on a mischievous fairy with an intimate knowledge of aerial sabotage, called the Gremlin. The word probably formed by analogy with Goblin. Of course, there are competing versions of how the word came about. The Dictionary of Folklore, for example, supposes that it may be related to an obsolete Old English transitive verb ‘gremian’ meaning to vex. Yet another version involves the relation of the word to a popular been of the time, called Fremlins.
There have been numerous published descriptions of the physical appearance of Gremlins. Those most commonly encountered by airmen during the second world war were considered to be between six and eighteen inches tall, and either blue or green in color. Some writers maintain that they have horns, like incipient devils, others that these are merely large ears which are covered by a rudimentary growth of hair. Their feet were reported to be large, and may have some special kind of suction grip which enables them to walk in safety all over aircraft (2). Although they are considered to be true Fairies, they are differentiated by the fact that Gremlins have no trouble handling and working with metals like iron, which fairies find deadly.
Their character can be described as mischievous, by which they resemble hobgoblins. Usually, they confine themselves to causing minor annoyances and only occasionally serious trouble. The latter still with a sense of mischief and never out of evil malice. Typically, World War II Gremlins would sit on an aircraft’s wing, fiddling with the aileron (American Gremlins were sometimes called Yehudis, because they are always fiddling) or blow dust into the fuel pipes. The time and place they would manifest themselves was predictable only by its unpredictability.
Gremlins are very sophisticated technologically, and implicitly understand even the most complicated equipment. No known instrument is beyond their intellectual capacity to master. They may also possess a sense of telepathy as they seem to know what a pilot is going to do before he does. The range of their activities are limitless, and besides their mechanical tricks they have been known to produce the appearance of the ground in a completely unexpected place out of a cloud. Navigators claim they are capable of moving mountains, island, and under extreme conditions even reshuffle the stars, although this more accurately represents the state of confusion they can produce in an aviator’s mind rather than a talent for earth moving.
During World War II, the existence of Gremlins was recognized by such authorizes as the British Air Ministry – where they were studied on the Ministry’s behalf by the well known Gremlorist, Pilot Officer Percy Prune, who wrote up their exploits in a service manual. This was the first official document to take Gremlins seriously and to propose ways to either placate them or distract them sufficiently to accomplish the mission without major mishap.
After the war, the lore of the Gremlins tended to die out. It is not generally known that this was a result of a subtle censorship, motivated by issues of national security, in the early 1950s, the world was in the grip of cold war paranoia. Special Air Force investigations were set up to study unusual phenomena which could not be scientifically explained. The most widely known of these secret studies was “Project Blue Book”, the special study of Unidentified Flying Objects, or UFO’s. Much less well known and even more highly classified was “Project Green Book”, which collected and analyzed cases of ACU’s or Anomalies, Cause Unknown. Orders were circulated through the upper echelons of the military pilot community that speaking of “Gremlins” or “Gremlin Effect” was unprofessional and to be strongly discouraged. In the Strategic Air Command it was banned by a direct order from Gen. Curtis Lemay himself, who is quoted as saying, “SAC does not have Gremlins. Period.”
The history and background of the Gremlin can be considered similar to that of other Fairey races or “little people”. The average person has little to fear from Gremlins or Gremlin Effect if they follow ordinary common sense and take care in dealing with machinery that all necessary precautions have been attended to. It is believed that Gremlins can sense, and are attracted by signs of arrogance or over confidence, and these should be avoided if at all possible. In addition it should not be overlooked that Gremlins can be helpful as well. It may be that an embarrassing and inconvenient Gremlin-inspired accident may prevent a catastrophic one later.
Ref: 1) Time Magazine, Sept 14, 1942
2) Edwards, Gillian: Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck. Geoffrey Bles pub.
3) Lyall, Gavin (ed.) The War in the Air: The RAF in World War II, William Morrow & Co.
This article was originally published in Gremlin Trouble book #2 copyright 1995