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"If you have a gut response to a story, you are not responding to something new ..you are really responding to a story you were told when you were six or seven…"
- Samuel R. Delany

Photoelectric Course Warning  
  A means of keeping a spaceship on course using a selected star and a photoelectric cell.  

In this excellent short story, the first spaceship takes off for a destination outside the solar system. How to keep your ship on course over the long days...

"Just keep that star on the cross hairs. It's Pi Orionis, a little out of our course, but a good target since it is only twenty-five light-years away. Half the light is deflected on this screen, with a delicate photoelectric cell at its center. The instant the light of the star slips off it, a relay is started which lights a red lamp here, and in a minute sounds a warning bell.
From Out Around Rigel, by Robert H. Wilson.
Published by Street and Smith in 1931
Additional resources -

This is not a true autopilot, since it does not correct the course. It just warns the pilot if the ship has wandered from its course setting.

However, I think it's a pretty good idea for 1931; airports had only started using lights in the late 1920's. They didn't even have real approach lighting until the 1930's. The lights in rows were only standardized in the 1940's.

I'm guessing that Wilson's idea is derived from the idea of using a photoelectric cell to keep a telescope trained on a star, which has been around since about 1915 (if I remember correctly).

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Out Around Rigel
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert H. Wilson
  Tech news articles related to Out Around Rigel
  Tech news articles related to works by Robert H. Wilson

Photoelectric Course Warning-related news articles:
  - Jules Verne ATV Docks Autonomously On First Try

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