A gremlin is a fictional mischievous creature. Gremlins are depicted as mechanically oriented and extremely devious.
The concept of the Gremlins as responsible for sabotaging aircraft is first recorded among airmen of Britain's Royal Air Force during World War 2, in particular the men of the high altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, Wick and St Eval. The story attempted to explain the accidents which often occurred during their flights.
The lore of the gremlin was first published in issue 13 of the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated April 18, 1942  although it is known to have been in circulation since at least 1940.  The author of the first article was Hubert Griffith, although he suggests that the stories have been in wide circulation for some time and are very well known.
Children's author Roald Dahl would have been familiar with the story of the gremlins, having carried out his military service in the 80th squadron of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East. Dahl had his own experience in an accidental crash-landing in the Libyan Desert. He recovered and briefly resumed serving in Greece and Syria but his frequent headaches soon caused him to be relieved of active duty. In January, 1942 he was transferred to Washington, DC as Assistant Air Attache. There he eventually authored his novel The Gremlins, in which he described male gremlins as "widgets" and females as "fifinellas". He showed the finished manuscript to Sidney Bernstein, the head of the British Information Service. Sidney reportedly came up with the idea to send it to Walt Disney.
The manuscript arrived in Disney's hands in July, 1942 and he considered using it as material for a film. The film project never materialised but Disney managed to have the story published in the December, 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. About half a year later a revised version of the story was published in a picture book published by Random House. The book is going to be republished in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics. Thanks mainly to Disney, the story had its share of publicity which helped in introducing the concept to a wider audience. Issues #33-#41 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories published between June, 1943 and February, 1944 contained a nine-episode series of short silent stories featuring a Gremlin Gus as their star. The first was drawn by Vivie Risto and the rest of them by Walt Kelly. This served as their introduction to the comic book audience.
Activities and variations
The rhyme featured in the RAF Journal article describes the gremlins and their activities:
The Fifinellas were viewed as less malevolent, and the name was adopted as a nickname for Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in the USA. Walt Disney himself designed a uniform patch, affectionately called a "Fifi".
It was at this point Robert Clampett created his 1943 Bugs Bunny film, Falling Hare. With Disney's film being the inspiration, this short has been one of the early Gremlin stories shown to cinema audiences.
Bugs is featured as relaxing at an air field, reading the book Victory Through Air Power|Victory Through Hare Power and is amused when the book mentions gremlins, accusing them of "diabolical sabotage". Bugs then hears (and feels) odd clanking sounds which upon investigation reveal a gremlin trying to detonate a blockbuster bomb with a mallet. Bugs pursues the gremlin aboard a bomber which is then put into uncontrolled flight by the gremlin. Bugs tries to keep the plane from crashing even as he is violently assaulted by the gremlin at every turn.
The Bugs Bunny cartoon was followed in 1944 by Russian Rhapsody, another short showing Russian gremlins sabotaging an aircraft piloted by Adolf Hitler.
A 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (The Twilight Zone)|Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", featured gremlins in this "aviation monster" sense, as William Shatner was a passenger watching helplessly as the creature attacked the plane. This episode was remade as a segment of 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which John Lithgow played the passenger watching in terror as the gremlin ripped apart one of the passenger jet's engines in mid-flight (the shared experience would be alluded to when Shatner guest-starred on Lithgow's television series 3rd Rock from the Sun in 1999) . The 1993 "Treehouse of Horror IV" episode of The Simpsons included a segment titled "Terror at 5½ Feet", an obvious parody of the Twilight Zone episode. In the segment, Bart Simpson played Shatner's role, watching as a gremlin worked at removing the bus's left rear wheel.
A movie called Gremlins, directed by Joe Dante, was released in 1984, followed by the sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch in 1990. The gremlins in these movies had nothing obvious to do with aircraft in particular (though one of the characters makes a reference to the myth), although they were portrayed as adept at subverting or sabotaging mechanical systems, especially in the second movie which took place in a high-tech office tower. This building has talking elevators and all sort of contraptions that often malfunction. Also, a reference to the earlier mythologies was mentioned in the first film. In the films, gremlins are creatures that originally start out as cute animals called mogwai. The fact that Gremlins mess with machinery harks back to the old myths.
In a 1990 episode of Tiny Toons titled Journey to the Center of Acme Acres the main cast encounters few subterranean dwelling gremlins which bared a striking (only recolored) resemblence to the gremlin in Falling Hare who also possessed the same michievious disposition (at least when Montana Max|Monty stole the world's largest gold nugget which belonged to them originally).
Other gremlin references