Gremlins are modern mythical creatures that are similar to imps and mischievous sprites. They are known primarily for causing malfunctions or unexplainable technical problems in aircraft. Increasingly, they are blamed for anything that goes wrong in any mechanical device that cannot be readily explained. Though tricksters at heart, they are thought to be somewhat malevolent.
Gremlins are a fairly recent invention. They may have originated during British air operations in the Middle East in the 1920s, or possibly during World War I.

There are several physiological explanations for the appearance of gremlins. One theory is that pilots who are subjected to long hours at high altitudes experience a minor bursting of capillaries in the eyes, which causes stimulation of the optic nerve. The human brain is programmed to create patterns out of chaos. So these random neural firings may be interpreted as faces and expressions. This is more likely to occur in times of stress, such as when an aircraft is malfunctioning.

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The British author Roald Dahl claims to have coined the word gremlin, inspired by his experiences as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot. A fellow airman who had served in the Middle East told Dahl stories of inexplicable mechanical failures. Dahl’s book The Gremlins was published in 1943.

Two Warner Brothers’ wartime cartoons quickly followed. In Falling Hare, Bugs Bunny battled gremlins as they dismantled his airplane while in flight, and Russian Rhapsody satirized a cartoonish Adolf Hitler whose plane has been invaded by gremlins. Around the same time, Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo, introduced a character called Gremlin Gus. Disney had planned to develop a feature cartoon called The Gremlins, but the project was canceled when the company determined that gremlins were a fad that had already peaked.

The depiction of gremlins has evolved over the years. A popular episode in the Twilight Zone television series featured a malevolent gremlin. The creature destroyed the engine of an airplane while a passenger, played by William Shatner, helplessly tried to warn other passengers and the flight crew. In 1984, Steven Spielberg produced the motion picture Gremlins, and the sequel, Gremlins 2, in 1990. Spielberg’s gremlins started out as fuzzy, big-eared, and cuddly and morphed into terrifying creatures of destruction.

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Even in this day of pressurized jet aircraft, the mythology of gremlins is prevalent among pilots. Much that goes wrong in modern airplanes is attributed to computer and electronic malfunctions that often cannot be duplicated or traced. Initially, pilots might shrug off problems in these computerized planes as “stray electrons.” But sometimes, especially if the malfunction has an underpinning of frustration, the pilots may look at each other and say one word: “Gremlins.”