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WW1 US Prototypes

Automatic Land Cruiser – ‘Alligator’

ww1 British tanks American ww1 armor USA / British Empire 1915
Tank – None built

The USA was a latecomer to WW1. By the time they started sending men and machines to Europe to fight the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), it was June 1917. By that time, millions of men had already been killed and the war on the Western Front had become a war of attrition in trenches in a shell-blasted landscape.

Prior to this date, however, parts of America had not been idle. Indeed, the first British work on tanks had used the American Bullock Creeping Grip track system, which formed the basis first of Colonel Crompton’s work and was eventually fitted to the vehicle commonly known as Little Willie – the world’s first tank.

What is less known is that the Bullock system was also planned for use by another retired British officer – this time in America, albeit at a time when the British were dropping the Bullock tracks in favor of their own system developed by Sir William Tritton and William Foster and Co. Ltd.

The British man concerned here is Alexander McNab and he was based in the heart of America’s arsenal – Hartford, Connecticut. A ship engineer by profession, he proposed a well shaped and well armed ‘tank’ which became known as the ‘Alligator’ – the most viable tank design to come from America in the whole war.

Origins

The first use of tanks in WW1 was by the British at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15th September 1916 as part of the Battle of the Somme, and there was a quick reaction to the employment of this new mechanical weapon of war in the press around the world. Various newspapers, magazines, and artists, whether officially or even humorously, tried to envisage what these machines looked like based only on written reports, leading to some rather outlandish ideas of what a ‘tank’ looked like. However, it was not until November that year, when the first official photographs were passed by the censor and published in newspapers, that the public finally got to see these machines.

In this dark period between knowledge of their use and the first photos lay, amongst others, a serious article in Scientific American published on 7th October 1916. Serious because, unlike the majority of newspaper speculation which seemed (especially in America) to claim that the Holt tractor was the basis of the British tanks (it was not), Scientific American instead considered them to be based on the Bullock system. They were not based on that either, but they could not have known this at the time and given that the first tank, known as Little Willie’ or the Lincoln No.1 Machine, was indeed fitted with Bullock Creeping Grip tracks when it was first made, meant that this is a very forgivable error.

A Mk.I Female tank is seen in multi-colored camouflage and using a pair of wheels at the back. Of note are the wire nets over the top, intended to stop grenades from landing on the roof, and the leather helmet worn by the man standing out of the top. Although this was the first official photo of a tank, the first images of tanks did not reach the public until November that year.
Source: Imperial War Museum Q2488

Scientific American, in their article, presented what was to be a common image of the Alligator tank which they described as “a military tractor for use against the trenches”. They claimed that the vehicle had been designed as a response from the British to an unnamed “Western firm” and named the vehicle as an ‘Armadillo’. Given the rounded top of the Alligator and the lines of bolts holding it together, the name Armadillo is, despite it being the product of the magazine, perhaps a better name than the name provided by the designers.

When the article is referring to a “Western Firm”, it is unclear if it is referring to the Bullock Company’s work for the British in 1915 supplying lengthened versions of their Creeping Grip or something else. Certainly, it is possible that the Bullock work was being referenced, although it is notable that the company was actually based in Chicago, Illinois, in the east of the country.

Scientific American went on to state that the design for this vehicle was submitted to the British Naval Munitions Board in London some months prior to the actions by tanks that September. The armored tractor shown in Scientific American, named as ‘Armadillo’ in the artist’s rendering, was not the product of some artist’s febrile or absinthe-induced imagination like so many others, but one based on these Bullock Creeping Grip plans.

The Alligator, as imagined by the artists at Scientific American and based on the published drawings. Here it is shown patriotically and dutifully crushing ‘the Hun’ in their trenches. Of note is that the tank is shown with Maxim-type machine guns in the front in error. The lengthened Bullock Creeping Grip tracks are evident.
Source: Scientific American.
Plan and side view of the Alligator, as published in Scientific American. Note the high position of the driver in the center.
Source: Scientific American.

The Men

In understanding the origins of the Alligator, those behind it need to be considered. There are, in fact, two men involved in the story of the Alligator. The first and most important was Alexander McNab. The second was an American called Norman Leeds.

McNab was originally from Scotland and according to him, had served 12 years in the Royal Navy, finishing with the rank of Lt. Commander. As early as July 1913, he was demonstrating his skill as a marine engineer, with a patent application for an automatic circulator for a steam boiler, followed by another patent related to steam boilers in 1914, and a third in 1915.

From those patents and US census data, followed by his military census record of 1917 as well as various local newspapers, it is possible to determine that he was a British citizen born in 1876, meaning that he was 38 years old at the outbreak of the war.

In 1917, he had given his original occupation in the USA as an inventor and that he was, by that time, a marine engineer and was running the McNab Company (and McNab Indicator Company) which made nautical and engineering appliances, including his ‘iceberg detector’, amongst others.

He would eventually move around Bridgeport as his fortunes increased through the First World War, with addresses changing from Post Office Arcade (1915), where the McNab Indicator Company held large offices on the 1st floor (2nd floor in America), to Fairfield Avenue (1916), and Brooklawn Park (1917). By the time of his last patent in 1931, he was still in Bridgeport but was residing on Main Street.

The elegant Post Office Arcade in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The building survives to this day.
Source: Bridgeport Library

The second man was Norman Leeds. Leeds was the managing director of the Automatic Machine Company (A.M.C.) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Born on 15th November 1871 in Manhattan, New York, Leeds was an American citizen also residing in Bridgeport (on Boston Avenue). Unlike McNab, however, prior to 1917, he had no prior military experience disclosed on his US military census card. He had, however, a prior career with Western Electric Company amongst others, until 1908 when he and a few others took a controlling interest in the Automatic Machine Company. Leeds was also the President of the Board of Construction and Supply in 1914 and both he and McNab were donors to various charitable causes in the area, in particular when war broke out.

Norman Leeds pictured in 1922.
Source: The Bridgeport Times

Together, these two men worked to seek potentially lucrative engineering work for the new war in Europe. This is no surprise, as that area was producing vast quantities of arms at the time. The nearby town of Hartford, for example, was where John Browning invented his automatic pistol machine gun and automatic rifle in 1917 and the location was home to the Colt Armoury, which made more than ½ million guns during the war.

Both men were skilled and knowledgeable in the boat industry, with A.M.C. producing, amongst other things, boat engines ranging from a single-cylinder motor producing just 6 hp all the way up to a 6-cylinder 150 hp unit as their common motorboat engines. By at least 1913, they were also offering engines up to 250 hp.

In July 1912, Leeds was already in the news, traveling around Europe in order to promote and sell his marine engines. Business was obviously good enough to sustain the enterprise through to the start of the First World War in 1914.

Advertisement for Automatic Machine Co. marine engines. Source: Motor Boating March 1911

The Design

Using the lengthened ‘Alligator’ type tracks from the Bullock Creeping Grip tractor, the vehicle was to be some 23’ 6” long (7.16 m) long, 10’ (3.05 m) wide, and 11’ (3.35 m) high. The front of the vehicle was noticeably pointed, with an upturned portion at the bottom and then meeting at a point to the two sides forming a piked-nose. Directly above this double-glacis was a fighting section consisting of a semicircular shape with three guns pointing forward and to the sides. The sides of the hull were vertical and the roof curved, creating an arched roof over the large interior. The rear of the machine was rounded off with a pair of guns pointing backward. On each side of the machine was a small sponson projecting outwards, fitted with yet another gun. Surmounting the whole lot was a low cylindrical structure for the driver and commander to see out of.

The fuel tank was designed to sit directly above the water tank and directly in front of the driver’s position which, rather like the later German A7V, was atop the vehicle. The driver was, therefore, sat directly above the gearbox and controlled the direction of the vehicle with a simple steering wheel. This position would provide an unobstructed view of the terrain ahead, but also created a huge blindspot at least the length of the vehicle directly in front of it. This would mean that the vehicle was dangerous to maneuver against obstacles close by and, should the front elevate to cross an obstacle slightly, the driver would see nothing but the sky above, making control of the machine difficult.

Crew-wise, there are no details at all, other than an obvious driver’s position atop the machine. Assuming two men in the elevated driver position (a commander and a driver), and at least one man per gun, this would mean a crew of not less than 9 men.

Development and Timeline of the Alligator

It was apparent to Leeds and McNab that the war engulfing Europe brought with it certain commercial opportunities. It is also clear that reports of this new war and the shocking numbers of casualties were something their respective engineering skills might be able to redress. The result was Leeds’ idea for a fully tracked and armored fighting machine to break the deadlock. His initial design work on this vehicle idea was completed on 9th July 1915.

Shortly thereafter, he consulted with McNab and some changes were made to the design, with this second version ready on 14th July, making this a sort of Anglo-American project. No drawings are known of the first Alligator design to which a comparison with the modifications done in conjunction with McNab could be made. It is not clear, therefore, how extensive or visible, if at all, any of the changes were.

The Alligator, as it appeared in Scientific American in October 1916. Despite the lack of public knowledge of what British tanks actually looked like, the vehicle, as shown, is very competent. Full length tacks, a clear cupola to command and steer from and well positioned armanet on the front and sides. Note the distinctive swirl-pattern of the Bullock Creeping Grip wheels at the front and rear of the track. Source: Scientific American.

There was no point in having a design for this weapon of war and having no means of selling it, so, Leeds tasked McNab with taking it to the relevant British and French authorities. This is at least part of why Leeds brought McNab into the project in the first place, although this is perhaps unfair to McNabs’ skills. They were both in the same industry, both qualified and skilled men and McNab had the advantage of being British, ex-Royal Navy and therefore more likely to be taken seriously by the British establishment, as well as able to leverage whatever contacts or knowledge he would have as to where to go with the concept.

McNab left New York on 17th July, arriving in Liverpool on 27th July 1915. Upon arrival, he went to see Colonel Holden, then head of the British Army’s Army Service Corps (ASC). McNab left Holden with a copy of the plans for the vehicle, even though he was unable to assist McNab. It seems that rather than digging further into the military establishment in Britain, McNab chose to get straight over to France instead.

He had only been in Britain until 15th August, meaning a stay of just 19 days. Two days after his arrival in Paris, McNab tried to elicit interest from the French military authorities in the vehicle in a presentation at the War Office in Paris. McNab was left with the impression that the French were interested in the idea of the vehicle and especially in placing an order for engines from the firm. Nonetheless, he left on the 20th, after just 3 days, and returned to London. On 23rd August, McNab met with General Moir (Comptroller of Munitions Inventions) who, according to McNab, was so interested that he sent McNab to get the plans back from Holden to show him. Why that course of events was necessary was utterly unclear as, apparently, on his sales trip, McNab must have only brought two copies of his plans with him – something of an oversight for a sales trip.

Following the conversation over the plans with Moir, an appointment was made for him to attend the Naval Armoured Car Division at Pall Mall and once more reported that the officers he spoke to were very interested. He thereafter returned to the USA.

The first trip had clearly pricked some interest and it spurred a second trip, which took place in September that year. By the 8th of that month, McNab, visiting London with his wife, even managed to witness the aerial bombing of London by a Zeppelin from their balcony at the Metropole Hotel. Traveling to France on this second trip, McNab was able to speak with Monsieur Corcas, the Secretary to Albert Thomas – the French Minister for War. M. Thomas was later to be a thorn in the side of the nascent French tank program, which was working on a 2-man tank from Renault (the Char Renault FT), as Thomas had wanted a bigger machine.

McNab was back in Bridgeport by the 24th, meaning that this second trip – like the first, was an all too brief affair. Seemingly, no more was heard of the matter and, with the failure to obtain either engine orders separately or together with their vehicle design, both men went back to their normal business but still seeking to profit from the war. The same month McNab returned from his second visit to Britain, he was acting as a promoter for the New England and Pacific Steamship Company – a company he founded in 1915 to ship goods from Bridgeport and New London to the Pacific Coast via the Panama Canal. He advocated strongly for this war as a “golden opportunity” for the US shipping industry to produce as much new merchant shipping as possible, both for commercial benefit and replace the losses of Allied shipping by German submarines.

Even though their efforts had been unproductive, both men were still successful in other respects. In February 1916, McNab was giving his title as ‘Vice-President of Marine Specialties Ltd.’ and had made yet another trip back to France, where he had engaged with the French military authorities over his becoming an advisor to their engineering corps. The advisor stint perhaps was a little bit of an overstatement by McNab, as he was back in the USA in March 1916 with his wife who had accompanied him to France suggesting a little more of a business trip combined with sightseeing than a formal appointment as a technical advisor.

When in September 1916 Leeds and McNab got to hear about the use of tracked armored machines on the Somme, it is therefore forgivable and understandable why these men might believe that their machine was the basis of the British work. They could not, and would not have known of the top-secret work which had already taken place a year beforehand to develop a machine better than theirs. British work had, in fact, started in February 1915 – several months before their own efforts.

Certainly, McNab remained closely involved in both his Bridgeport community as well as providing talks locally on the war. In March 1917, he was providing local talks on the war in the Bridgeport area, claiming to have been to France to study the war, although, given that even the Landship Committee (the body tasked with designing and buildings Britain’s first tanks) was denied access to the front line, his reconnaissance would likely have been fruitless. The idea that he would be directly visiting the front is also undercut by the fact he had brought his wife on the trip and was mainly reported to be in Paris.

In September 1916, following the announcement of the British use of this new weapon, there was obviously a lot of attention paid to the machines and, in response to this event, Leeds was claiming that it was he who had invented the tanks as used by the British. He pressed the fact that it was he, not McNab, who pushed for their ‘tank’ design and that he had commissioned McNab to go to Europe in 1915. The phrasing of his claim is significant because when it states “….McNab… to go to England and France and try to enlist the interests of the Allies in the invention, but that since then the English have adapted the idea by using an English engine”. In other words, whether or not the idea was to promote the whole design or just the engine within it, as the Director of a business supplying marine engines, his concern was with engine production contracts.

It could be taken from that statement that his primary goal was only to sell engines, but then why go to the effort of designing or promoting the vehicle around them? This claim is also the origin of the ‘Alligator’ perhaps being explained as to why the name is applied to the vehicle as Leeds states that his design was more to do with that type of tracked vehicle than the Holt caterpillar.

In November 1916, just two weeks before the first photos of British tanks were published, Leeds provided the most thorough account of the theory, purpose, and design of the Alligator vehicle.

In that article, Leeds described that it was he who, upon realizing that combat on the Western Front had ground to a halt, had conceived of a vehicle based on this Alligator-type tractor chassis, long enough to cross trenches and that the tracks would not be bothered by enemy barbed wire. Clad in armor and fitted with weapons, the machine would break the deadlock and bring victory for the Allies – at least in theory. With the knowledge of the vehicle in use in September 1916, but unaware of what the machine was that the British were using or when they had started their secret design work (before his own), his claim to the invention is understandable if incorrect.

Protection

No armor thickness is specified in the writing available from Leeds or McNab. However, the protection was going to be substantial, as Leeds was wanting armor capable of protection from enemy 3” (76 mm) guns. However, when it came to convincing the British or the French over the design, Leeds and McNab were quite happy for the end-user to determine the final armor protection.

Although the protection level is not specified, it is reasonable to assume that, at an absolute minimum, protection from bullets would have to be provided, meaning at least 8 – 12 mm of plating. The available images of the Alligator show that the body is riveted together throughout. With the heavily angled front, the Alligator design would actually provide some sharp angles to incoming fire to help deflect shells and bullets and the same was true for plunging fire on the roof. Overall, this rather crude machine was well designed in terms of a shape for ballistic performance in comparison to its contemporary British designs.

Construction and Deployment

Leeds proposed at least 1,000 such machines would be required – certainly a very healthy contract if he had to provide the engines. For use, he imagined them operating as a naval screen, protecting the soldiers who followed from enemy fire both with their armor and also by attracting the enemy fire to them.

Armament

The artists for Scientific American clearly drew Maxim-type machine guns in the vehicle. Belt fed, these guns were definitely not the same as the ones shown in the plans of the Alligator, and neither Leeds nor McNab mention exactly what weapons they were proposing. The drawings are unclear, but there are some options as to what the guns may be.

A close-up view of the front of the Alligator from Scientific American clearly shows Maxim-type machine guns fitted. Note the vision slits to the right of the machine guns.
Source: Scientific American
Digitally cropped from the drawings shown in Scientific American the armament for the Alligator clearly sits atop a skewed conical mounting and is more than a mere machine gun. What appears to be a small hand crank is visible in the right-hand image and the outline of what may be a magazine sat on the top left-hand side at the back. Source: Scientific American as modified by the author.

The first option is the Driggs-Schroeder 1-pounder gun. Like all Driggs-Schroeder guns, this used a rifled barrel where the twist progressively increased towards the muzzle. The 1-pounder guns all had a caliber of 1.445 inches (36.7 mm).

The gun had started life in 1889, with a request from the US Navy for a 1 pounder gun that could outperform existing designs and still be under 100 pounds (45.4 kg) in weight. The result was the Driggs-Schroeder 1-pounder Mark I, with a 40-caliber bore and firing shell at a muzzle velocity of between 1,313 and 1,800 feet per second (400 to 549 m/s, respectively).

A second design followed shortly thereafter, known as the Mark II, with a 50-caliber barrel and a muzzle velocity of 1,884 fps (574 m/s). It used the same shell with 140 grams of black powder as the propellant, as used in the Mark I gun.

A final version of the 1-pounder was developed specifically for light vessels, such as yachts, and used a shorter bore (33 calibers) and a lighter charge than the preceding guns. Made in one piece as forging, the light 1-pounder was 12 lbs. (5.44 kg) lighter than the Mark I, weighing in at 88 lbs (39.9 kg).

The total shell weight, including case and propellant, was 1.53 lbs. (0.69 kg), with the actual projectile weighing 1.06 lb. to 1.10 lb. (0.48 to 0.50 kg) including a 0.03 lb. (13.6 gram) burster charge in the armor-piercing shell. With no burster charge or fuse, the armor-piercing shell weighed 0.94 lb. (0.43 kg). This shot was capable of perforating up to 1 ¼ inch (32 mm) of steel at point-blank range and up to ¾” (19 mm) at 1,000 yards (914 m). These shells were developed for naval combat but were more than sufficient to deal with the tanks of WW1.

1 pounder Driggs-Schroeder gun on standard conical recoil mount. The small size of the gun is readily apparent.
Source: American Ordnance Company

A lower weight of gun was obviously a good thing to help keep the weight of a vehicle down, as was the reduced charge. This would result in reduced recoil forces, meaning any mounting could be smaller and lighter as well. Considering that the low-power 1 pounder was designed on a simple conical mount and bolted to the wooden deck of a yacht, this was an excellent choice of gun for a tank design in terms of dealing with enemy bunkers or penetrating the shield of a field gun, or even enemy armor.

Unfortunately, the small size of the gun came with a serious handicap – a small shell. For the Driggs-Schroeder guns, steel shells with a base fuse and small explosive filling (Armor Piercing High Explosive – APHE or ‘Semi-Armor Piercing’ – SAP) and common (High Explosive – HE) shells were available for all calibers. The small size of the 1-pounder HE shell, however, would mean a very weak performance for a round which would be needed in the anti-infantry role or to smash an enemy position.

1-pounder steel shot fired from the Driggs-Schroeder gun and photographed after having penetrated a 1 inch (25 mm) thick iron plate (right), the shell on the left is a 3-pounder Driggs-Schroeder after passing through a 3 inch (76 mm) thick iron plate. Note that neither shell has burst from the small explosive filler so was presumably fired unfused to demonstrate the robust steel body of the round. The contrast in size between the two shows the diminutive size of the shot from the gun selected for the Alligator.
Source: American Ordnance Company
1-pounder standard shell (left) compared to the 1-pounder low-power cartridge (right). Both fire the same 92 mm long shell but from different sized cases.
Image composited by the author.
Source of the original: American Ordnance Company
Steel armor-piercing shell (left) showing the base fuse and small high explosive bursting charge compared to the common shell (right) with the larger charge. Image composited by the author.
Source of original image: American Ordnance Company

The drawing is, however, different from the Driggs-Schroder guns in some important regards. Firstly, the barrel of the Driggs-Schroder gun appears to be thinner than that shown and, if the item on top is a magazine or feed-trough, then the breech-fed DS guns are not the ones drawn.

Another option is the Hotchkiss 37 mm revolving gun, another common, albeit somewhat ancient naval weapon (it first came out in 1871). This one, unlike the Driggs-Schroder guns, had both a vertical magazine on top and a cranking handle. With five 37 mm barrels, each 20 calibers long, the weapon was a means of delivering serious firepower both at sea and on land.

Hotchkiss 37 mm revolving cannon.
Source: Koerner

Described as a cannon, the Hotchkiss revolving gun is basically a large compound machine gun with 5 barrels rotated by a cranking handle which also fed rounds from a vertical hopper or magazine on the top, firing them in turn as the barrels rotate. Each trough can hold up to ten rounds and, fed by another operator, the firing soldier operating the gun can fire between 60 and 80 rounds per minute. If he has to feed the trough on his own the rate of fire is still substantial, at around 40 rounders per minute.

For naval use, the gun weighed 200 kg, although the light version for field use was 225 kg, as well as having a ‘powerful’ version weighing 475 kg. The light versions of this gun were able to deliver their Common 37 mm shells out to 4,473 m.

Ammunition for the 37 mm gun included Steel shot, Common shells, and Canister shells, all using a metal cartridge case. The Common (High Explosive) Shell was made from cast iron and was hollow, with this cavity holding an explosive charge. Other calibers of this gun included 40 mm, 47 mm, and 53 mm caliber versions.

The Steel Shot was pointed and used no explosive bursting charge, relying on its mass, velocity, and shape to penetrate light armor and ship’s decks.

Left to right shells are Common, Steel, and Canister. The shell on the far right is a common shell, showing how large the complete round is with its case. Source: Composite image created by author from Koerner.

Even the Hotchkiss cannon is not a perfect match for the drawing. The feed-trough for the ammunition is not quite right and, of course, these are not multiple barrels shown. So perhaps the guns drawn in the Alligator are neither of these options. Given, however, that both Leeds and McNab were marine engineers and had expertise in shipping, it is no surprise they might select a gun like the Driggs-Schroeder or Hotchkiss. At the end of the day, however, they were also perfectly happy for the end-client to select and install their own armament to suit their needs.

Exactly what the guns were aside, the plans clearly show three of these guns in the front of the tank forming an arc across the front and able to provide fire across nearly 180 degrees of fire. Less clear are the side and rear guns, although these two appear to be the same designs, with one in a small sponson on each side, in a manner very similar to how British tanks did actually use them and then two more covering the rear. This meant a grand total of 7 guns although, in reality, rear-facing weapons would be of little use and the absence of a machine gun would render the machine more vulnerable to enemy infantry swarming the tank.

For the purpose of comparison, if the Alligator was fitted with the Driggs-Schroder guns and a modest ammunition supply of just 50 rounds per gun, this would mean a total load of about 520 kg. If it was the light Naval Hotchkiss 37 mm for the same assumption, it would be 2,263 kg – more than 4 times the weight.

Automotive

Perhaps the defining element of the Alligator is not the shape, the guns, or even the attempts to sell it, but the selection of engine and track. The track, as already discussed, was an extended form of the Bullock Creeping Grip but the engine was not from Bullock.

The engine – the primary purpose of the entire project, was located just slightly aft of the center down the length of the tank and centrally along the longitudinal axis. It is clearly shown in ‘The Iron Age’ of September 1916 to be a 4 cylinder petrol motor from the Automatic Motor Company delivering 100 hp. The transmission lay in front of the engine and was itself preceded in the vehicle by a large water tank.

The ‘Alligator’ type tracks from the Bullock Creeping Grip tractor were to be 16’ (4.88 m) between the centers of the main wheels at each end and this length allowed the Alligator to cross a gap up to 8’ (2.44 m) wide.

For the Alligator, the Bullock suspension was stretched forming 6 distinct sets of bogies, each containing a trio of road wheels supported by a horizontal bar between them. Right In the middle of the length of the suspension is a single wheel on its own, meaning a total of 19 road wheels. This single central wheel was connected to the bogies fore and aft by a single horizontal bar running along all 7 wheels. Also visible in the cross-section view are 7 return rollers on the top of the track run, keeping the track tight.

Close up of the suspension system on the Alligator.
Source: Scientific American
Bullock Commercial Tractor with 150 hp engine and short tracks. Source: Le Gros
The lengthened Bullock Creeping Grip tracks ordered by Colonel Crompton and fitted to the Juggernaut / No.1 Lincoln Machine.
Source: UK National Archives

The track too was an issue. Colonel Crompton, whose work led to Little Willie, was certainly in favor of the Bullock track on the rather sensibly pragmatic basis that it was the only one available at the time that worked reasonably well. Nonetheless, there is no mention from Leeds or McNab of any idea of changing the actual track on the Bullock suspension so it can be reasonably assumed that the Alligator’s tracks would be little more than an extended version of those fitted to the Juggernaut/No. 1 Lincoln Machine.

The selection of the Automatic Machine Company 100 hp 4-cylinder petrol engine would certainly have been an improvement over the standard engines available from Bullock, of which the largest was the 75 hp 4 cylinder with a 5” bore and 6.5” stroke (127 mm bore / 165 mm stroke) as used on the Creeping Grip ‘Giant’.

Automatic Motor Company 4 cylinder engine as installed in a motorboat.
Source: Motor Boat, December 1920

However, assuming for a moment a similar level of performance from the Alligator as could be achieved at best from the Bullock Creeping Grip ‘Giant’, this would mean a top speed of 1.06, 2.4, and 3.4 miles per hour (1.7, 3.9, and 5.5 km/h) in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd gear and just 1.77 mph in reverse. Whilst the 100 hp engine from A.M.C. was larger, so too would be the weight of the vehicle and soft ground smashed by shellfire littered with the detritus of war and barbed wire would only serve to slow the vehicle even more. Certainly, the speed would be slow.

The End

In the end, the design of the Alligator came to nothing. The British, for their part, had already decided well before McNab’s first trip in 1915 on the direction of their own studies. Regardless of any advantages or disadvantages the Alligator had, the work did not appear to influence British designs in at least so far as the tracks and body shape. The one piece which could be argued was derived might be those side sponsons that were to become the dominant and most recognizable of features of British tanks of WW1. These too, however, may also be explained by the British designers – men like Sir Eustace D’Eyncourt who was himself a naval architect and simply took inspiration from naval weapon mounts as well.

Whatever claim to the invention of the tank in whole or part by Leeds and McNab they do not seem to have engaged with the Royal Commission on the invention of tanks after the war to press their case. Perhaps it is not too surprising either – there was a wealth of inventors both genuine and fraudulent after September 1916 claiming to be the inventor or inspiration for the tank. They were also successful businessmen and had moved on from their foray into tanks.

The design, however, was actually rather well organized, providing substantial firepower directly to the front as well as coverage over the side. In some regards, the design even had a better fighting arrangement for the crew than was on the later British Mk.I, as the engine was further back and control could be by a single driver rather than a driver and gearsmen having to work together.

The biggest flaw in the idea was the tracks. Whilst the lengthened Bullock system was a good system, it simply was not as good as the Tritton system the British were eventually to adopt and the track layout was just too simple. No Alligator tanks were ever built.

McNab passed away on 6th March 1941 and his former colleague, Norman Leeds followed him three later, dying on 29th October 1944.

What-if view of the Alligator Automatic Land Cruiser in green camouflage. Illustration by Pavel Carpaticus Alexe, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Sources

Alexander, J. 2015. Briefly Famous, The 1917 Caterpillar G-9 Tank and other American Tanks 1916-1918. Private Printing, USA
American Ordnance Company. The Driggs-Schroeder System of Rapid Fire Guns. The Deutsch Lithographing and Printing Company, Baltimore, MD, USA, 1896
Hills, A. (2019). Pioneers of Armour 2. Col. R. E. B. Crompton. FWD Publishing, USA
Koerner, A. (1879). The Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon. Private Publication, France.
The Farmer, 9th November 1914: ‘Norman Leeds’ parents in double funeral at Woodlawn Cemetery’
Bridgeport Evening Farmer, 14th June 1915. ‘To run freighters from Bridgeport to Pacific coast’
Bridgeport Evening Farmer, 20th September 1915: ‘See airmen fight over city roofs’
New Britain Herald, 20th September 1915. ‘London damaged by Zeppelin raid’
The Farmer, 24th September 1915: Connecticut shipyard owners have unusual opportunity to restore once famed business’
The Farmer, 2nd February 1916: Bridgeport Inventor now associate of French Army Corps’
Bridgeport Evening Farmer, 28th March 1916: ‘Briton’s won’t invade Germany asserts McNab’
The Farmer, 21st September 1916: ‘Norman Leeds claims invention of ‘tanks’ used by British Army’
The Farmer, 3rd August 1916: ‘M’Nabs indicator is advertised in wireless waves’
Harrisburgh Telegraph, 7th November 1916: ‘Automatic land cruisers was developed by American purely in an effort to sell engines’
The Farmer, 22nd March 1917: ‘St. John’s Men’s Club with hear Alex M’Nab’
Bridgeport Evening Farmer, 6th May 1916. ‘Plan additions at Post Office Arcade’s annex’
The Bridgeport Taimes, 17th April 1922. ‘Norman Leeds of community drive is optimistic’

Motor Boat Magazine, December 1920
US Patent US1103425 ‘Automatic-circulators for steam-boilers’, filed 18th July 1913, granted 14th July 1914
US Patent US1155832 ‘Boiler-circulator’, filed 19th November 1914, granted 5th October 1915
British Patent GB6228 ‘Improvements in or relating to circulators for steam boilers’, filed 26th April 1915, granted 9th March 1916
British Patent GB367608 ‘Improvements in Shock Absorbers’, filed 30th March 1931, granted 25th February 1932
McNab, A. (1920). Encyclopedia of Marine Appliances. The McNab Company, USA.
Pacific Marine Review, June 1920
Motor Boating Magazine, Vol.10, 1912
Motor Boating, February 1913
Motor Boat, Vol.17, 1920
Power Boat Magazine, Vol.36, 1925
Power Boat Magazine, Vol.21, 1921
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anecdotes-from-the-archive/new-technology-for-1916-tanks/
The Iron Age, 7th February 1924: ‘Plans of New Companies’
The Iron Age. 28th September 1916. The Automatic Land Cruiser by W. E. Freeland.
The Shipbuilder and Marine-Engine builder, Vol.48. Obituary Commander Alexander McNab
United States Census 1900 Sheet 5A
United States Census 1910 Sheer 24A
United States Census 1920 Sheet 7B
United States Census 1930 Sheet 35B
United States Census 1940 Sheet 21A
Findagrave.com https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/83072999/norman-leeds
US Military Census 1917 for Norman Leeds
US Military Census 1917 for Alexander McNab
Yale University. (1912). Quindecennial Record of the Class of 1895. Yale University Press. Connecticut.

‘Alligator’ specifications

Crew est. 9 (Commander, Driver, 7 gunners)
Propulsion A.M.C. 100 hp petrol
Armament up to end-user but shown with 7 guns of an unknown type
Armor up to end-user but desired protection from 3” (76.2 mm) enemy guns
For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index
Categories
WW1 US Prototypes

Miller, DeWitt, Robinson SPG

USA USA (1916)
SPG – None built

World War One brought about numerous technical innovations to break the stalemate of static warfare which had rapidly become the defining characteristic of the war. Then, as now, it was artillery that was the key to defeating enemy defenses. The need to move large caliber guns to the front was fundamental to any army trying to achieve a breakthrough. Although the USA was not at war in 1916, this was a conflict watched keenly around the world as the fighting developed and was widely reported. Stanley Glonin̈ger Miller from St. Paul, Minnesota, a manufacturer by trade, Dorcy Olen DeWitt, also from St. Paul, who worked for the Crex Carpet Company as a machinist, and Myron Wilber Robinson, from New York City and also a manufacturer, submitted a patent application on 21st February 1916, ostensibly as an ‘Improvement in Belt-rail tractors’ for military purposes. What they actually designed was one of the world’s first tracked self-propelled guns.

The information for the design is held squarely within patent applications filed in the UK, Canada, and United States by those three men. These three men knew each other, as they all worked at the Crex Carpet Company. DeWitt was a machinist and employee, Miller was a Vice President, and Robinson was the President of the firm.

The firm itself bears some scrutiny, as it took harvested and dried wiregrass and wove it into twine and later into wicker products. The company had previously been the American Grass Twine Company which, in 1903, was rebranded as ‘Crex’, taken from the Latin name for the grass used, Carex Stricta. Woven into mats and carpets and wicker products, Crex was a profitable market-leading company for a short time and was even listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1908.

Large factory floor space was needed to turn this dried tough grass into a workable material and machine looms would run, turning it into matting and carpet and eventually into wicker. By the time of the outbreak of the World War, the wicker industry from grass was waning. It was being replaced with wicker made from paper which had been invented in 1904 and, being cheaper to produce and easier to work with, rapidly ate away at Crex to the point where, in 1917, the firm had all but ceased to exist. Wicker was gone from its products and its decline only ended in 1935, when it finally went bankrupt.

This is relevant to the design from Miller et al. as, at the time it was drawn up, these men, who knew a thing or two about machinery and engineering processes, were looking for a new and profitable enterprise to which they could turn their energies.

Quite what inspired the design they came up with is not clear. It could well be a function of seeing tracked harvesting machines at work collecting their raw grass product. After all, this was the inspiration for Robert Macfie to look at Holt tractors in the UK in 1915 using his sugar plantation experiences.

With a war raging in Europe, it cannot have been made in isolation and, yet, the time of application for the patent is somewhat remarkable. January and February 1916, just months after the British had ordered a Top Secret new weapon into production – the tank. There was absolutely no way in which these men could possibly have known of that development so this was an advance made in isolation, a case of convergent evolution where the same solution comes about as a result of the same pressures.

The patents in question were filed in the UK on 18th February 1916, but the Canadian filing for it was even earlier, on 20th January 1916. All this was at a time when the United States was not even engaged in World War One, but in which these men could not have been unaware of one of the key problems encountered – how to get large artillery guns and other material to the front.

Mobility

Traveling on what they called a ‘belt-rail’, which would be recognized today as a caterpillar-type track, the machine was to be able to traverse irregularities and undulations of the ground, soft or broken, and small obstacles to get where it needed to go. One of the key features in doing so was to keep the center of gravity for the vehicle as low as possible to reduce the chance of it overturning.

Layout

The vehicle was divided into two sections. The first took the form of the mobile tractor frame mounted on tracks and which was fitted with the engine and gearing. The second part of the vehicle was a structural framework that pivoted to the tractor frame. This part was fitted with guiding wheels that controlled the steering of the entire vehicle.

The primary frame was rectangular in shape and made from two longitudinal steel beams. Slung perpendicular between those two beams was a series of bracing beams to which the tractor units were connected.

Above the track units was a low slung platform on which the load of the vehicle sat.

Plan view of the vehicle showing three narrow track units supported by five supporting beams. The steering wheel can be seen at the front right of the track section and the large framework for the four drum-style wheels in front of that. Note that the image has been cleaned digitally to improve clarity. Source: UK Patent GB102849
Side view of the tractor showing the engine at the extreme rear, the very low-slung track units, and the four-wheel steering system at the front. Note that the image has been cleaned digitally to improve clarity. Source: UK Patent GB102849

Automotive

In the patent drawings, three sets of tracks are used, but the description is clear that any number of track units could be fitted to a framework in this way. Power to those tracks was delivered via a very simple worm gear from the output shaft. This worm gear drove a large tooth gear that powered the tracks. The power for that worm gear came from an internal combustion-type engine.

Side view of the engine. It is clear that it projects over the rear of the tractor on a metal framework. The gearing from the engine and the engine is all exposed, but it is hard to imagine it would not be enclosed by some sort of cover had the vehicle even been constructed, as it would soon have fouled with dirt. Note that the image has been cleaned digitally to improve clarity. Source: UK Patent GB102849

The tracks were formed from interconnected metal links with a V-shaped grouser and were considered sufficiently different from existing tracks to warrant another patent application, submitted on the same day like that for the tractor. UK patent GB104135 for the tracks shows these interconnected thin one-piece links connected together by steel pins and using a built-in track guide in the center to hold the hold to the wheels preventing lateral movement. This is notable as, in 1916, the form of track being used was a simpler plate attached to a shoe, with the shoes being connected together and dragged around the vehicle by the drive sprocket. Early tanks, such as the British Mark I or French FT, used this shoe method. Those tanks also had separate plates which were fitted close together but did not intermesh. The design from Miller et al. wanted the edges of each link to intermesh with the preceding and following links. For a design in February 1916, seven months before tanks were even first used and entered the public imagination, this was an advanced system of track for a vehicle. It is worth noting that, although the British patent for this link was filed in February, the US patent for the tracks was filed on 10th January 1916.

The 1916 track links show a deep V shape for obtaining traction in the ground and an interconnecting link shape connected by steel pins. In the center of each link is a pronounced guide horn for keeping the track from sliding sideways on the wheels. Note that the image has been cleaned digitally to improve clarity. Source: UK Patent GB102849
From the patent for the tracks submitted at the same time as the tractor, more details of the design are clear, showing how the wheels ride on the inside of the links. This seems obvious in a 21st-century world, but in 1916, this was not the normal means by which tracks operated. Note that the image has been cleaned digitally to improve clarity. Source: UK Patent GB104135

Vertical movement of the front of the vehicle was controlled by hydraulic cylinders which served to prevent lateral movement but permit vertical movement whilst ensuring that the wheels stayed pressed onto the ground.

The similarity of this idea to the British use of wheels on the back of the Mark I tank in 1916 is very striking here. The Mark I used a system of springs to push the wheels down for the dual purpose of steering and to help raise the nose of the tank to climb obstacles. There is no mention of obstacle climbing assistance for the Miller et al. design, but the use of a system to keep the steering wheels pressed into the ground is very much the same.

On the Mark I tank, these were found to be superfluous and really a bit of a hangover from the original ideas of 1915, slaving tractors back to back, and were quickly abandoned. It is not necessarily the same situation with the Miller et al. design, as the wheels are at the front, substantially wider, and also more numerous. However, should Miller et al. have selected a second steerable track unit to be mounted in place of those wheels or a mechanism to vary drive to the tracks to provide the steering, this would have been a better steering solution for the vehicle.

Armament

No armament is specifically mentioned in the patent for the vehicle, other than to say there was sufficient space for “a gun”. The drawing, however, clearly shows a large-caliber mortar or howitzer on a mounting which appears to be shown capable of rotating on its base. Mounting a gun in this manner would have been a significant advantage for an Army of the age as, in 1916, there were no heavy guns mounted on tracked self-propelled carriages. Heavy guns, instead, had to be hauled around on old-fashioned wheeled limbers by horses, or trucks. This was a slow process which meant they were hard to move and slow to get into position on broken ground. They would then have to be set up in place to fire and could only fire from that position. If the gun had to be moved even a relatively short distance, it would have to be limbered back up, moved, dismounted, and set up all over again. This situation was even worse for large-caliber guns, which often had to be shipped in multiple pieces due to the size and weight of the elements of the gun and carriage.

With a self-propelled chassis, this was not the case and several armies, notably the Italians, placed field guns on heavy trucks to create a mobile artillery force. Whilst that system could indeed move guns around fairly quickly, what they could not do was move very well off-road and the maximum load carried was just 5 tonnes or so – limited by the strength of the truck frame and tires.

By using tracks in this design, Miller et al. would be able not only to move around on or off-road more easily but also carry a far larger (and heavier gun) if they wished to. A gun such as the British Ordnance BL 9.2” howitzer of the era weighed over 5 tonnes just for the gun alone, without including ammunition. A platform like this would have been able to mount such a gun and ammunition and the men to crew it and move it around. It might not have been fast but it would be a far quicker alternative method of moving the gun used to that point.

Seen as a whole vehicle carrying a hypothetical heavy gun of some description, the lack of wheels on the gun mount and elevation would indicate that it was envisaged that such a platform could be used to fire from Note that the image has been cleaned digitally to improve clarity. Source: UK Patent GB102849

Even if a gun was not being carried, this platform system would have been adequate for men, supplies, ammunition to be carried relatively simply, although it must be borne in mind that there is no armor and no protection from the elements for the men or load being carried.

Conclusion

The design from Miller, DeWitt, and Robinson was never built, it received no orders and the hopes of these men to profit from this design turned to nothing. When they submitted their design, Great Britain had already been at war since 1914 and, in 1917, the USA also joined in. Spring 1916, when they submitted this design, coincided with the British work on their new war invention, the tank, using a quite different system of track.

It would be 1917 before the British got their own tracked gun carrier, the Gun Carrier Mk. I. With a maximum payload of 7 tonnes, the Gun Carrier Mk. I allowed for heavy guns to be moved across broken ground with the added advantage of being able to load and unload field guns via a ramp at the front. No such ramp was provided for by Miller et al.’s design but it is nonetheless an advanced design and the tracks, in particular, were substantially more advanced as a design than those used on British tanks, although making them resilient enough for use is a different thing to designing them.

British Gun Carrier Mk.I. of 1917. Source: Wiki

Little can be found of the three men responsible for the vehicle, Dorcy Olen DeWitt, Myron Wilbur Robinson, and Stanley Glonin̈ger Miller. The US Census of 1910 and 1920 provides few details, but DeWitt is known to have been born on 23rd May 1880 and died on 15th June 1964. Myron Robinson, the President of the Crex Company and likely the team lead for this design, is more obscure. It is known that he was born on 11th August 1881 and was from New York but little more than that. The Crex Carpet Company went bankrupt in 1935 with just US$24.90 in the bank. The third man, Stanley Glonin̈ger Miller, is yet more obscure and all that can be confirmed about him at this time is that, in 1917, he held an associate membership of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The men were amateurs in that they were not military men or tracked vehicle experts, but they clearly knew about engineering and designed one of the first tracked self-propelled guns.

The vehicle would assuredly have been slow, the steering system inadequate, and the gearing system somewhat over-simplistic, but there is no denying the advanced design of the tracks and the theories being considered in mounting the gun.

The Miller, De Witt, Robinson SPG with the front wheels lowered down. This would have been one of the first SPGs in the world. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Thank you to Plays.org for supporting us in writing this article. Check out their free tank games on their website.

Sources

UK Patent GB102849 Improvement in Belt-rail Tractors. Filed 21st February 1916, granted 4th January 1917
UK Patent GB104135 Improvements in Beltrail Tractor Tracks, Filed 21st February 1916, granted 21st February 1917
Canadian Patent CA195323 Tractor. Filed 20th January 1916, granted 21rd December 1919
US Patent US1249166. Caterpillar Tractor Track. Filed 10th January 1916, granted 4th December 1917
Holmes, F. (Ed.). (1924). Who’s Who in New York City and State. Who’s Who Publications Inc. New York City, USA
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers Yearbook 1919. New York, USA.
Nelson, P. (2006). Crex: Created Out of Nothing. Ramsey County Historical Society Magazine Vol. 40 No. 4, Minnesota
United States Census 1910. Beloit Ward 3, Wisconsin Sheet A11

Categories
WW1 US Prototypes

Wagner’s War Tank

USA ww1 USA (1918)
None built

The last name Wagner is more usually associated with classical music than armored vehicles, but Frederick Wagner of Detroit, USA may have had more than the compositions of his last-name sake on his mind when, in 1918, he submitted a patent application for a deceptively simply named ‘War Tank’.

The Man

Frederick W. Wagner of Detroit, Michigan may well have been one of the tens of thousands of immigrants to that part of Michigan who arrived in the years preceding the First World War from Germany and Poland. Sadly, the name is common enough both there and in Detroit at the time that it is not possible from available records to find more biographical information on him. What is clear, however, is that from a review of his design that his ideas were not as outlandish, impractical, or separate from mechanical possibility as many of those which had gone before or since. Indeed, it could be theorised that Wagner had either some experience in the vehicle field or at a minimum had done some research on armored vehicles when working on his own design. With both tracks and wheels, Wagner’s War Tank is not even one of those peculiarly limited number of wheel-cum-track machines which became popular during the period between the end of WW1 and start of WW2.

Layout

The donor vehicle for Wagner’s design, if it could be called that, appears to be based around a large agricultural or industrial tractor of some sort, with a pair of large wheels at one end and a pair of small wheels at the other. Usually, this arrangement is done so that the large wheels, which bear the majority of the load, are the driven wheels and the smaller wheels are steered. Also usually, these are arranged so that the large wheels are at the back and the small wheels at the front, a layout still on many tractors to this day.

Wagner’s War Tank
Digitally cleaned plan view of Wagner’s War Tank facing to the right with the large wheels at the front. Source: US Patent US1292170.

Wagner, however, had swapped this around. Not only are the small wheels at the back but also the large wheels which are at the front are the wheels used for steering. At first glance, this seems illogical, as larger wheels are harder to steer but the logic is actually clear as Wagner‘s vehicle would benefit when it comes to climbing over a parapet or across a trench where these large wheels are less prone to becoming stuck. One point of note on the wheels is that they were to be fitted with solid rubber tyres according to the text but are shown with agricultural-style ribbed steel treads around the circumference. A pronounced rib on the inner ring of the wheels is described as “detachable flanges”. The purpose of these ribs or flanges is so that, when not operating on road (on the rubber tyres), or off road in soft mud (on the tracks and steel treads), it could be conveyed on a railway either by itself or by being towed. In total, the vehicle was to be around 30 feet (9.14 m) long and 15 feet (4.57 m) high with a maximum width of 10 feet (3.05 m).

Wagner’s War Tank facing to the right
Digitally cleaned side view of Wagner’s War Tank facing to the right with the large wheels at the front. Source: US Patent US1292170.

Propulsion

Automotive power for Wagner’s design is somewhat lacking. He clearly states that the engine is to be a somewhat inadequate 50 hp, although he does not state if this was to be petrol, diesel, or kerosene. Power would be delivered by a simple connection of shafts which then drove chains connected to the rear wheels at both sides and the rearmost wheel of the four-wheel track unit slung underneath the hull. No means are provided by which to raise or lower the track units on each side, as they would only be in use when the vehicle sank into soft mud. Even so, as the large front wheels remain undriven, the entire effort of propulsion through the mud would be left to these small track units and small driven wheels. With such little horsepower available, it seems likely that Wagner’s War Tank would simply become hopelessly stuck very quickly once it sank into the ground. With the track units fixed, the vehicle is really an Armored Car with some track assistance rather than a ‘tank’ in the true sense of the world.

Armament

Multiple armaments are mounted on Wagner’s design, with two sponsons projecting from each side, a limited traverse gun mounted in the front and a fully rotatable turret on the roof. Mounted in all of these positions are what Wagner described only as “rapid fire guns” and then drawn as small cannons. The sponson guns are undoubtedly the weakest part of his design, as both of them can only face forwards or to about 90 degrees to the side. Whilst this means a lot of potential forward-facing firepower it also seriously limits the effectiveness of the machine. Perhaps this is why a small loophole is also provided in the side wall below the turret through which another rapidly firing weapon could be fired. Even so, that would only allow fire directly to the side and not forwards. The gun at the front would likewise be very limited to doing anything other than firing across a limited forward arc. To assist in firing, a searchlight was to be provided at some point on the vehicle (not shown) so it could operate at night.

It is the turret which is perhaps the most useful part of the design and something which, in 1918, was not even present on many tanks. With the ability to deliver firepower or allow for easy observation in all directions, the turret would logically be placed at the top or at least the front section of the vehicle. Here, however, in probably the single largest flaw in Wagner’s design, the turret is not only placed in the back half but also cannot fire to about 90 degrees of the front due to the built-up superstructure at the front half to accommodate two sponsons and the forward-facing gun. This limits the potential of the turret to just around 270 degrees of traverse and, with the rest of the guns positioned as they are, that at no point could Wagner’s design ever bring all of its guns to bear on a single target or even in a single direction whether fore, aft, or to the side.

Crew

No specific number of crew are mentioned by Wagner in his application and obviously at least one man is needed just to drive the machine, whether it is a ‘tank’ or a truck. With two guns in the sponsons projecting from each side, a turret and the forward-facing gun, men will obviously be needed to operate those weapons too. Even with just one man per gun, that is at least another 6 men for a crew of likely not less than 7 in total.

The driver would still be sat alone in the front, sandwiched between those two large front wheels, although his head height from the drawings would be above the top of the wheels so they would not obstruct his vision to the side.

Armor

The armored body of Wagner’s War Tank offers no finery or finesse in terms of shape, as it consists of not much more than a large rudimentary box. Wagner had, however, done this with the goal of having the body as simple as possible, so that it could be removed easily. With no armor, the machine would be left as a heavy utility vehicle for hauling guns or carrying men and stores. Here, once more the switch from the usual location of the small wheels at the front to at the back has an advantage for Wagner – it simply permits a larger load to be carried when not in use as a tank. In terms of protection, Wagner is clear that the vehicle would have armor plating (presumably steel) ¾ inch (19 mm) thick, certainly thick enough to protect against all of the standard small arms of the era.

Wagner’s War Tank facing to the right
Digitally cleaned cut-away side view of Wagner’s War Tank facing to the right with the large wheels at the front. Source: US Patent US1292170

Conclusion

Wagner’s ‘War Tank’ is certainly an interesting design coming in the final months of WW1 in Western Europe. The designer has clearly spent some time considering the relative merits of tracks and wheels and more so, the merits of large versus small wheels for traction. The wheeled part of his scheme, switching from the convention of small front to larger rear wheels provided the design with flexibility as a load carrier as for crossing obstacles. Likewise, the ability to use rubber tyres would provide a smooth ride of the road or then with the steel treaded wheels to gain traction off-road, and to provide for a means of movement by rail was a notable plus too. The tracks however, are simply superfluous. Slung underneath, they add a lot of weight and complication without any benefit up to the point of being bogged down, whereupon the low engine power seemingly would leave the vehicle stranded.

Whilst the adoption of a turret was a good idea for this vehicle, the multiple other weapons and the poor positioning seriously limits both the effectiveness of the turret and other weapons.

Overall, Wagner’s War Tank, whilst having some interesting technical merits and ideas, was a failure. No vehicles were made and, by the time the patent was granted, the war was effectively over anyway.

What Wagner’s ‘War Tank’ would have looked like. Illustration by Pavel ‘Carpaticus’ Alexe, funded by our Patreon campaign

Specifications

Dimensions (L x W x H) 30ft x 10ft x 15ft
(9.14 m x 3.05 m x 4.57 m)
Crew 1 + at least 6
Propulsion 50 hp liquid fuel
Armament Rapid firing guns x 6
Armor 3/4 in (19 mm)
Total production None built

Sources:

US Patent US1292170 War Tank, filed 17 July 1918, granted 21 January 1919

Categories
WW1 US Prototypes

Osborn’s Electric Gun Carriage

USA ww1 USA (1898)
None built

The second half of the 19th century was a period of rapidly increasing industrialization and the development of better and better machines, refined by science and war. Old tactics and concepts of warfare had to evolve and keep up as new devices, like a reliable modern machine gun, were quickly being evaluated and adopted by major armies whilst, simultaneously, civilian developments, like the first motor cars, were replacing horse-drawn transport on the roads.

With a crude layout, Henry Osborn submitted a patent application in 1898 for what is one of the first known mechanically propelled armored fighting vehicles. Crude by today’s standards, the vehicle embodied many elements later taken for granted on a vehicle as well as a concept of how to actually deploy the vehicle in combat – something commonly lacking many of the often outlandish designs conceptualized in a patent before and since.

The Man

Henry Porter Osborn of New York, NY, USA filed this patent for what he described as a “new and useful Shield-Protected Automobile Gun Carriage” on 21st May 1898. He qualified as a dentist in 1889 and was living in New York, practicing his craft out of number 10 East 48th Street. He is believed to have died in 1918 but, other than that, there is very little information available about this man. The only other known official record for him is another patent application he filed two years before his gun carriage. That patent, for the construction of a brush, took 10 years to be granted which, if not a record, was still an extraordinary amount of time.

The Vehicle

Based around a simple trio of wheels, the carriage is a simple affair. Two large diameter and wide wheels are at the front with a third, smaller diameter wheel at the rear to provide steering. Between these three wheels is a large rectangular platform on which a crew could operate and which narrowed towards the back where the platform met the steering wheel. In front of this platform was a large angular shield in the shape of a ‘V’ on its side, reaching almost as high as the top of the front wheels and through which a large firing loophole was provided for a forward-facing large calibre gun. With the shield in this position, it would provide complete protection for the men operating the vehicle. The vehicle was outlined in two forms. The first was a simple open-topped design with a single large cannon facing forwards and the second used a contained shelter for the men within a complete enclosure of armor.

Osborn’s patent application
Digitally cleaned plan view from Osborn’s patent application showing the rectangular platform and central position of the cannon. The two large wheels are denoted as ‘A’. Source: US Patent US698049

This second form was substantially wider than the first and carried up to 8 large caliber guns in the same manner as the first outline. The primary difference between the two schemes was the size and power, as the second vehicle clearly shows a space alongside the wheels in the front for motors. The use of 8 guns in the wider form of the vehicle was, however, merely indicating that the platform could be made any width as required to provide guns facing forwards. The wheels and body of the vehicle were to be made from the “best shot-proof steel known to the arts”. Thus, even in the initial roofless form, the wheels themselves provide protection for enemy fire for the men operating the carriage.

Further protection could be gained by parking the front of the vehicle against a wall, rampart, or earthen embankment to cover the lower half from return fire by the enemy.

Osborn’s extended version of the carriage with additional guns
Digitally cleaned plan view of Osborn’s extended version of the carriage with additional guns placed across the width. Note that this shows the enclosed structure from above. The 4 protrusions at the rear marked as ‘M’ were only to be used for the connection of animals to push the carriage if no engine or motor was used. Source: US Patent US698049

Propulsion

Power for Osborn’s Gun Carriage was envisaged to be provided by electric motors or steam or “any other form of motor”, including petroleum or kerosene motors or even just animal-drawn. Were it to be animal-powered, the horses, mules, or even oxen would be connected to the rear of the vehicle to provide ‘push’ rather than to tow it behind in the manner of a cart. The engines were located on each side of the vehicle, just on the inside of each of the large front wheels. These wheels were to be hollow to save weight and space but wide enough to spread the load from the vehicle on the ground.

Digitally cleaned cut-away
Digitally cleaned cut-away side view showing a very simple arrangement of the platform and angular gun shield. The large cavity on the inside of each wheel where Osborn proposed an engine or motor is apparent. Source: US Patent US698049

During road travel when not in combat, Osborn’s carriage could be connected to another such carriage by removing the third wheel from the back of each to create a four-wheeled vehicle. Obviously, this removed the steering wheels from the vehicle but this did not matter for it was to become a towed carriage on a railway rather than propel itself when so connected. All that remained for it to move by rail was the addition of flanges to the wheels to ensure it stayed on the rails during transport. Likewise, if it was using electric motors, it could simply deploy a trolley-car type electric connection from above it to draw power from overhead lines. One factor not considered by Osborn however, was that this method could only be used by a vehicle the width of a US railroad or trolley-car line. For reference, this meant a track width of perhaps as little as 3’ 6” (1,067 mm) for a trolley car up to 4’ 8 ½” (1,435 mm) for the US standard rail gauge.

Electrical propulsion was clearly Osborn’s preferred means, as he not only described a system for powering it from an overhead trolley-car line but also that the space enclosed by these large hollow wheels could also be used for large batteries on each side. Storing charge, these batteries would then, in theory, be able to propel the carriage to its destination.

Crew

At a minimum, the vehicle would need one man to control the steering at the back and possibly the engines/motors as well. Unless this single man was to park and then operate a single gun alone, it is logical to assume a normal gun crew for each of the cannons, so a crew of possibly 5 men or so for the one-gun form of the carriage and thereafter an additional 2-4 men per gun. Following the rudimentary drawing, it would appear that access was to be gained from the rear although other doors are possible.

Osborn’s Gun Carriage
Digitally cleaned cut away view of Osborn’s Gun Carriage showing a fully enclosed superstructure and the vehicle carefully positioned to limit the possibility of being struck by return fire. Note that the gin shield here is curved in the lower portion rather than angled. Source: US Patent US698049

Conclusion

This is a very early concept for a mobile gun battery. Considering the technology available to him in 1898, Osborn came up with a clever concept for using these open-backed large diameter wheels for both protection from enemy fire and also for covering the engines or motors and batteries on each side.

At a time when field guns were almost entirely still drawn singly and by animals, Osborn even understood the power of additional mobility by using rail or trolley lines to move his guns as well as how it should be deployed to present a small target to the enemy.

Side view of the Osborn gun carriage, showing the front-mounted gun and the large front wheels.
Perspective view of the Osborn gun carrier, showing the large front shield. Illustrations by Rhictor Valkiri, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Specifications Osborn’s Electric Gun Carriage

Crew 1+ gun crews
Propulsion Electric or steam (or any other form of motor including petroleum and kerosene), or drawn by animals.
Armament 1 or more large calibre guns facing forwards.
Armor “best shot-proof steel”
Total production None built

Sources

US Patent US698049 Gun Carriage, filed 21st May 1898, granted 22nd April 1902
US Patent US 832805 Brush Construction, filed 6th August 1896, granted 9th October 1906
Westfield New Jersey History https://www.westfieldnjhistory.com/greavesfiles/fam05227.htm
Polk’s Dental Register and Directory of the United States and Canada. 11th Edition 1914-1915. R. L. Polk. and Co. Publishers, NY, USA

Categories
WW1 Italian Prototypes WW1 US Prototypes

Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle

USA ww1 USA/Kingdom of Italy (1918)
Prototype – None built

In the centuries of the patent system, a veritable pantheon of good and bad ideas have come and gone and, in the wake of World War One, this tradition continued with some truly awful ideas. One of these ideas was quite rightly consigned to the dustbin of history. The idea of a wonder weapon capable of fighting both on the seas as a warship, in the air as a combat aircraft, and on land as a tank. This is Mister Longobardi’s improbable armored car-plane-submarine-warship of 1918.

The Man

Felix Longobardi is anything but a household name, but there are clues to this man from his patent application in the United States on 12th June 1918. Mr. Longobardi provided a city residency as Chicago, Illinois and was clear that he was a subject of the King of Italy i.e. had not yet adopted US citizenship.

Felix Longobardi arrived at Ellis Island, New York on the SS Patria from Naples, Italy on 23rd September 1915 (the ship left Naples on the 8th) with his brother Domenico (and his brother’s wife), a baker by profession. As Felix was an “additional person” on that record to his 53 year old elder brother, it is fair to assume that Felix was born after Domenico although no actual date of birth or age is listed for him.

Ellis Island immigration register
Felix Longobardi’s name in the Ellis Island immigration register 23/9/15.

Felix is only recorded as submitting a single patent in the US – this one for the combination vehicle, although it should be noted that a ‘Felice Longobardi’ with an address in Chicago did submit a patent application in 1929 for a pneumatic vehicle wheel and used the same firm of attorneys to do so, namely Messers. Glenn and Noble. Whether this patent applicant is the same person as ‘Felice’ rather than ‘Felix’ cannot be determined.

To add to the unknowns about the designer, Felix is not listed on the 1920 or 1930 US census nor in the rolls of the US Expeditionary Force War dead from 1917-1919. What happened to him is unclear. He may have changed his name, returned to Italy, or been one of the numerous casualties of the flu which swept across the US at the end of the decade.

The Vehicle

The outline of the shape of the vehicle is very distinctive and, as can be imagined for a vehicle capable of operating in 4 domains, is impractical in all of them although it is really the break-down of trying to make a vehicle suitable to travel in each medium which requires some analysis.

Land

As a land-based vehicle, the Longobardi Combination Vehicle is utterly hopeless. Four small wheels lie astride the central third of the vehicle along its length. None of the wheels appear to be fitted with any kind of suspension and the patent explains they are on common axles and can be steered somehow. The ground clearance for the vehicle is woefully inadequate for anything other than the smoothest possible road with the three propellers underneath in each third of the length reducing this even further. This terrible clearance is compounded by enormous overhangs at both the front and rear, meaning that the bow and stern of this vehicle would be guaranteed to strike the ground on even the most rudimentary upwards or downwards slope. Add to this the exceedingly narrow track width (the distance between the centre-line of the tyres of wheels on a common axle) and this ungainly machine is seriously overbalanced laterally. Should it attempt to negotiate even a modest side slope it would likely topple over.

The idea that this vehicle could be used as a land-based weapon of war is frankly therefore laughable and creates probably one of, if not the worst designs for an armored car imaginable.

Air

When this design was submitted in 1918, the basics of flight had been known for many years and armies had already deployed aircraft in combat. As a result, there is little excuse for such an inadequately designed machine as an aircraft. Firstly, there is the problem of the wings. Two relatively short rectangular wings protrude from the front third of the machine, each of which is barely wider than the hull of the machine itself.

Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle
Digitally cleaned front views of Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle with wings out (left) and stowed (right). The extremely narrow track width is apparent. Source: US Patent US1286679

The main wings were to be supported by cables and were also hinged at the body. When not in use, these wings could be raised and stowed in the vertical position, ensuring that this already enormous vehicle was even more visible when used on land.

Propulsion in the air was the same as in the sea – propellers – lots of propellers. In fact, two large propellers at the front provide pull in the air and in the water. Likewise, the three propellers underneath were to provide uplift in the water and (according to Longobardi) in the air as well. Thus, these horizontal propellers could provide vertical trim and additional lift.

Control of the horizontal and vertical attitude of the craft was to be provided by means of the small tail rudder working in combination with a small set of wings at the back when operating in the air or water.

ongobardi’s Combination Vehicle
Digitally cleaned plan-view of Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle shown facing to the right. At the front a pair of propellers were to provide propulsion. Of note is the very small wing surface on the rectangular wings at the front. A small rudder is positioned at the back. Source: US Patent US128667
Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle shown facing to the left
Digitally cleaned side view of Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle shown facing to the left. Source: US Patent US1286679

Propulsion

All of the propulsion for the vehicle via wheels and propellers (save for the rearmost propeller) was provided by a pair of large batteries in the bottom central portion of the hull. No means appears to have been provided by which these batteries could be charged up in the manner of an electric or hybrid-drive system, so once the vehicle set off, it would continually be reducing the available charge in the batteries. Unlike a conventional liquid or even solid-fuel vehicle, no combustion takes place, which means that the Longobardi’s vehicle is the same weight when the batteries are half or fully discharged as they are when full. With a conventional vehicle, as it consumes fuel it gets progressively lighter, which assists in extending the range. No such advantage exists here with a purely battery-driven system.

Two motors are provided inside the vehicle, one in the front third which could drive propellers as well as a cable drum for winching in-or letting out the cable which controlled the position of the wings, and a second motor at the very rear which drove the primary propeller at the back.

No sizes or motor capacities were described in the patent. Nor is there any detail as to the power source for these motors. No estimates as to the weight of the batteries is provided or the available storage.

The primary advantage of electing this electric-drive system is that it obviates the need to burn fuel so the vehicle does not need an exhaust or funnel to vent out gases. This is an advantage for a vehicle planned for potentially going underwater, as it allows for the hull to be kept watertight more easily. The large funnel-shaped object on the vehicle is not, in fact, a funnel, but is the conning tower for observation and access, although when in use on land or flying, observations were to be carried out from the small compartment in the front roof of the vehicle marked as ‘38’ on Longobardi’s cut-away drawing.

 Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle shown facing to the right
Digitally cleaned cut-away side view of Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle shown facing to the right. Source: US Patent US1286679

Firepower

No weapon of delivering war to your enemies is much use without some form of offensive firepower and Longobardi’s vehicle is no different. Clearly shown on the drawings in the patent as a trio of cannons. Looking at the foremost of these weapons, it is also clear that it is intended for firing out of a split rectangular hatch in the side of the hull and, as the left view of the vehicle also shows, such a door strongly suggests a fourth gun as a single gun to fire out of both sides would be extremely limited in what it could fire at, as it would be set back too far from both of those side hatches.
The rearmost of the guns are both shown pointing upwards through hatches in the roof of the vehicle and were intended for protection against aircraft. No details of what type of guns these may be is explained by Longobardi but the most notable part of his plan for armament is the lack of forward-facing weaponry.

Although the hull is air-tight, there is no mention of any thickness of it or what material it would be made from. If steel, even lightweight and all welded steel is considered it would have to be thin to keep that weight down but also strong enough to withstand the pressure of being submerged even a small distance under the water. It could only be concluded that no meaningful protection to even bullets could be provided for this vehicle.

Crew

The only mention of crew was the single operator/driver of the machine. Considering the potential for 3 to 4 guns, however, this would mean a crew complement of at least 5 to be of any possible use.

Conclusion

Considering the year of the design was 1918, Longobardi certainly took inventiveness to a new level. In his design, he was picturing an electrically powered vehicle capable of independent flight as well as what would have been one of the largest wheeled vehicles on the roads of the day. The design is frankly a poor one. Far too boat-like and almost certainly incapable of any form of flight short of driving off a cliff. Ungainly and hopeless on the road, the vehicle was an enormous target as a ground-based vehicle, too big and too heavy for any realistic flight and added nothing to the issue of sea power that a conventional and far smaller, less technically complex ship could already accomplish. The whole machine is far too big to be able to have any kind of meaningful protection. There is, after all, a good reason why there are no flying submarines and despite Longobardi’s intentions to try and create an all-encompassing vehicle capable of operating anywhere, what he created instead was a design for a vehicle incapable of operating anywhere in any way better than vehicles, ships, and planes which already existed.

Longobardi’s Combination Vehicle in all of its glory, showing its wings, wheels and propellers to move on all sorts of terrain. Or, more physically accurate, sink, fall and break down on all terrains. An illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Specifications

Crew at least 5
Propulsion Electric batteries and motors
Speed little or none
Armament 3 – 4 guns
Armor little or none
Total production None built

Sources:

US Patent US1286679 ‘Combination Vehicle’, filed 12th June 1918, granted 3rd December 1918.
US Patent US1796952 ‘Vehicle Wheel’, filed 15th June 1929, granted 17th March 1931.
New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island) 1892-1924. Page 99, Line 9. US National Archives.

Categories
WW1 US Prototypes

Shuman ‘Superdreadnought’

USA ww1 USA (1916)
Land Battleship – Not Built

There is something about war which can tickle the dark recesses of the minds of even brilliant engineers and make them forgo all sense of reality or common sense. The Shuman ‘Superdreadnought’ is a particularly fine example of completely unrestrained thinking by any measure of cost, use, utility or reality, and really stands out as something approaching the acme of bad ideas for WW1. There were certainly plenty of terrible ideas at the time for equally or even bigger vehicles, but Shuman’s design stands out amongst them as the product not of some crazed madman, but of a well respected and distinguished engineer, someone who should have known better.

Shuman’s design crushing a hapless American neighborhood. Photo: Popular Science Magazine December 1916

“Only the Battleship is a Real War Machine”

So says Frank Shuman, a ‘distinguished and famous engineer’ according to Popular Science Magazine, in 1916. Why would such a juggernaut be needed and why, he laments “is there no land battleship, something comparable with our own Pennsylvania, something which will concentrate within one volume the striking power of an army”. Shuman lays out a case in the magazine why an enormous wheeled machine, well armored and “capable of traveling at high speed” should be the weapon of the future, ignoring small issues, like the damage it would bring just moving to a battle and the incredible costs involved.

He does, however, logically explain the case as to why so many of these giant wheeled machines were considered at the time. As the size of the wheel increases, the size of the obstacle to cross gets proportionally smaller. Thus, the giant wheel idea is supposed to be better able to climb barriers, walls and cross ditches and the such simply by virtue of size. The problem though is that large wheels have a lower surface contact area than tracks and push dirt in front of them as they move, creating additional rolling resistance thus putting pay to Shuman’s silly claim that “there is no good engineering reason” against a giant wheeled machine.

Graphic representation of why tracks are superior to wheels on a yielding surface. Photo: elmersmanufacturing.com

Shuman makes matters even less believable when he states that such a machine as his would be capable of over 100 miles an hour (161 km/h) and able to climb a 50 foot high (15 m) hill with ease. Quite how such a machine was to accomplish this speed when there was no suitable engine is inadequately glossed over. The best Shuman could offer for his fanciful idea was the concept that, as ships could produce a large amount of horsepower, then all he would need was some competent engineers to make a smaller version of those battleship oil-fired steam turbines to produce 20,000 hp. Even so, with a weight estimated by him of 5000 US tons, this would only have delivered 4hp per ton. Shuman had considered the problem of shock and vibration though, but the shock absorbers were are as far-fetched as his engine concept and were supposed to rely upon oil-filled cylinders 3’ (0.9 m) in diameter.

Effectively unarmed, this machine was supposed to rely instead on its rolling mass to cause the destruction the artists illustrate so admirably. Rolling at speed across the terrain, it is supposed to simply crush everything before it by means of the two large front wheels and the third trailing wheel. As if that was not enough destruction, between the two front wheels was a long row of heavy chains suspending “weights aggregating many tons” (he also describes them as weighing ‘several’ tons each) dangling down, crushing or smashing anything running underneath too.

Having illustrated in no doubt thrilling terms the destruction this machine could bring to the enemy by simply moving, Shuman fundamentally fails to discuss or explain how it was meant to get to the battle. He simply fails to contemplate how it could avoid bringing similar destruction to friendly towns, cities, roads, and railways en route. Perhaps the artist commissioned cheekily foresaw this problem too, which might explain why Shuman’s machine is not destroying a European town but an American one.
Each wheel was meant to between 150 and 200 feet (46 to 61 meter) in diameter and 20’ (6 meters) wide. The body of the vehicle itself consisted of a series of latticework structures extending across the length and width providing the strength and rigidity for the machine.

The boat-shaped cabin of the Superdreadnought and the 300’ long span of dangling chains. Photo: Popular Science Magazine December 1916

It was not proposed to protect the wheels with armor other than in the area of the wheel hub simply to keep the weight down. The hub is described as “the center of each wheel would be a mass of armor as thick of that as a battlecruiser”. It is confusing that, on one hand, Shuman selected not to armor the wheels in order to keep the weight down when his entire offensive action is meant to depend upon the speed and mass of the machine and even more confusing that the hub would have to be armored so thickly. ‘Armor’ though, would hardly seem necessary as Shuman planned on making these wheels out of steel plate armor 4” thick (100 mm) bolted together.

The only other part of the machine to be armored was the cabin perched on top of the lattice framework. The front was supposed to be shaped akin to a ship’s conning tower and the whole cabin was to be ‘ship-shaped’ which was to be thickly armored and contain the engines for the machine and a crew of some 30 or so men. Those 30 crew, perched hundreds of feet in the air, would have to access and exit the machine by means of a lift, such as in a tower block. However, with no armament carried, it isn’t clear what these 30 men were supposed to do.


The Shuman Superdreadnought heading towards Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Popular Science Magazine December 1916

The Designer

Frank Shuman was an engineer and an inventor from Philadelphia. He had developed a type of safety glass (called ‘Shuman’s Safetee-Glass’) and had achieved a certain level of international respect for his work with solar power generation, using the sun to boil water to make steam for power production in 1907 and a half-acre sized power plant in 1910. Immediately prior to WW1, he had even produced a power plant in British Egypt which in 1914 had to be dismantled for scrap to help with the war effort.

Frank Shuman 23/1/1862 – 28/4/1918 (pictured 1907).

Despite his inventive nature and holding a large number of patents, including several relating to steam power, Shuman did not seek to patent his Superdreadnought nor, it seems, did he pursue any other military ventures. His ‘sun-engine’ solar ideas were ahead of their time and could have been revolutionary were if not for the intercession of WW1, but his wheeled dreadnought was pure fantasy. He died two years later aged 56 before his solar dreams could be tried again with the war over, and his fantasy wheeled dreadnought was forgotten before it had even begun.

Conclusion

The Popular Science magazine article should not be taken too seriously. This Shuman Superdreadnought saw little if any chance of being taken seriously as a military machine. Many of this type of magazine articles were created simply to create thought amongst the readership and any idea of actually producing such a machine would have been fraught with major hurdles Shuman had not considered such as how it could get around without damaging infrastructure or how to recover one when broken down. The Shuman Superdreadnought is certainly an eye-catching idea to smash enemy lines with a grand machine but Shuman was neither the first nor will he be the last to propose such a machine. Shuman should be remembered not for this oddity but for his pioneering solar work instead.


The Shuman Superdreadnought, showing the large front wheels, the weighted chains hanging between the wheels, the tubular structure and the large cabin at the top. Illustration by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin.

Specifications

Dimensions Width: 300 ft (91 metres) Front Wheels: 150ft to 200ft (46 to 61 metres) diameter and 20ft (6 metres) wide
Total weight, battle ready 5000 tons (4,500 tonnes)
Crew Not more than 30 men.
Propulsion 20,000hp steam engine fed by oil-fired boilers
Speed Speed: up to 100 mph (161 km/h)
Armament None
Armor Framework unarmored, wheels (apart from the hubs) unarmoured. Hubs thickly protected with 4” (100m) thick steel plate

Links & Resources

Popular Science Magazine, December 1916
WW1 Landship Designs, Tim Rigsby and Charlie Clelland.
www.landships.info
Frank Shuman’s Solar Arabian Dream, Jeremy Shere. LINK

Categories
WW1 US Prototypes

Jehlik’s Armored Vehicle

US armor ww1 USA (1916)
None Built

Right from the early days of World War One (1914-1919), many people, military, political, and civil, saw the need for armored vehicles to break what had stagnated into the focus of the war: a long and brutal slugging match between the great powers across the continent of Europe. Until the revelation that the tracked ‘tanks’ would be the selected primary method of waging mechanical war across the shattered landscape of Europe, many of these same visionaries and inventors considered wheeled vehicles and many came to exactly the same outcome.

Specifically, they rightly concluded that large diameter wheels were better off-road in soft ground and for crossing obstacles than small wheels, as they had a greater surface area over which to spread the weight of the vehicle. Many of these designs therefore simply become a ‘big-wheel’ landship. often in the form of a pair of large front wheels with a small stabilising wheel or tail behind. The 1916 design from Anton J. Jehlick is reflective of this but he went one step further. Jehlick designed not just large-diameter wheels, but an enormous roller in the manner of a large diameter cylinder on its side. Jehlick produced one of the strangest looking of these big-wheel landships.

Cross-section view of Jehlik’s armored vehicle. Source: US Patent 1195680

Jehlik

Jehlik had an unusual background for an armored vehicle designer. He was not an engineer or soldier. He was, in fact, a pharmacist, known at the time as a ‘druggist’. He had graduated as such by 1899, married Bertha and had had a son around 1910. By the time of the outbreak of war in 1914 and prior to the US entry into WW1 in 1917, Jehlik was working as a pharmacist in Chicago and, as an educated man, no doubt saw an opportunity to consider the need for an armored vehicle for the war he would have seen reported in the newspapers of the day.

Description

Jehlik described his ‘armored vehicle’ as being in the manner of a “self propelled armored vehicle, comprising a large, heavy, cylinder containing the driving engines, ammunition, guns, equipment, and men to operate the artillery, guns, etc., and a second look-out compartment, mounted above the cylinder”.

That description of the machine really does not do justice to the size of it. The cylinder alone was to be 20 to 30 feet (6.1 to 9.1 metres) in diameter and 50 to 100 feet (15.2 to 30.5 metres) wide. In order to be protected against any possible enemy fire, Jehlik seemed to have ignored the practicalities of how heavy armor plating is and suggested armor plating of the type used on battleships, between 6 and 8 inches (152 to 203 mm) thick.

The Purpose

Disregarding for a moment Jehlik’s experience or lack of experience in vehicle technology or military matters, his design was very specific about what it had hoped to achieve. His goal was to create a vehicle capable of travelling across open-ground at “a high rate of speed” with the large heavy cylinder crushing obstacles such as barbed-wire entanglements. The armor would protect the men and vehicle from enemy fire. The roller would crush a path for troops to follow, and the size of the vehicle enabled it to cross trenches.

Armament

The armament for the vehicle was concentrated in the aft section, facing backwards, and positioned over a pair of small trailing wheels at the back. These wheels were actually ovaloid in shape, in the manner of an American football on its side, with the axle through the sharp points on each end.

Each gun was mounted in “a series of semi-circular sponsons” arranged at 30 degree intervals around the circular arc of the aft end. Further armament was provided fore and aft by means of loopholes through which rapid-fire guns were positioned. The exact type and number of weapons considered is not stated in Jehlik’s patent application, although the images provided show 5 large guns in the aft end on rotating floor-mounts. None of the rapid-firing weapons (likely he means some kind of machine gun) is shown however. The position of the oval loopholes through both walls of the heavy drum roller at the front would indicate positions for up to 5 such guns.

Why the primary armament faces to the rear is unclear, although possibly, Jehlik was picturing the vehicle rolling through enemy lines and then firing backwards to harass the enemy. This would, of course, mean firing your guns in the direction of your own following forces which could be extremely hazardous.

Plan view of Jehlik’s armored vehicle showing the unusual arrangement of gun in the back. Note that the vehicle is facing to the right in this image. Source: US Patent 1195680

Crew

Only a single member of crew is shown by Jehlik in his design: the driver. Positioned well above the rotating cylinder and fighting area of the vehicle, the driver sits in an armored cab that would have provided an excellent, if vulnerable view of the terrain in front and behind him. Bullet guards in front and behind him were intended to stop troops shooting upwards into the cab. Assuming just this one man was needed to steer the vehicle and control the propulsion, it would have needed another man to command it, presumably stationed with the driver on top and at least 10 men inside the main space just to operate the guns. Assuming just two men per gun and one per machine gun would have been required, this could have been as much as 15 or more men. Access to the vehicle for these men was concentrated in just a single rectangular floor hatch in the centre of the fighting compartment. The reason for this hatch was to provide a defence for the men inside against enemy ingress. Just wide enough for one man to enter/exit at a time, this would prevent the enemy from climbing in, and if they tried, the machine could reverse over them with the roller. Just as this may have sounded good for defence of the machine, it was also a major problem for the crew. All of the men inside would have to exit the machine one at a time through this small hatch and would have to hope the machine was not going backwards at the time. This slow egress is even more of a problem when it is appreciated that Jehlik considered the roof space of the fighting chamber as the best place for the fuel tank – above the men manning the guns.

Automotive

This very large machine was to be propelled by three four cylinder engines, although Jehlik was careful to mention that ”any number” of engines could actually be used in order to achieve the “high rate of speed” he wanted from the vehicle. The engine/s for the vehicle were shown rigidly connected to gearing to the main cylinder at the front. No provision appears to have been provided for a gearbox of any kind. Steering was to be provided by the pair of ovaloid trailing wheels under the back of the fighting space which could be rotated by more gearing, creating a rear-steering sensation for the driver. The petrol to power the engines was held in a single large tank on the ceiling.

Conclusion

Given the enormous size of the machine, Jehlik’s Armored Vehicle could easily be dismissed as an unworkable idea. This would ignore the purpose behind using a ‘big-wheel’ type machine and why so many people at the time, and even subsequently, came to the same conclusion of using large-diameter wheels. They are simply more effective at crossing obstacles and gaps than smaller wheels. The problem is that they need to be huge to put down enough surface area onto the ground to spread their load adequately and that size also means they become unwieldy to move and an easy target for the enemy.

For Jehlik, this problem is slightly alleviated by making his ‘big-wheel’ into a roller which significantly increases the bearing surface which could carry the weight of the machine, but this also adds additional problems. Making the roller wider makes it significantly heavier, as the ludicrous amount of armor he was proposing, far more than would ever be needed to protect against small arms, would have to be extended to cover the full width of the machine. The wider the machine, the more armor and thus the more weight carried. Bearing that in mind, the rather puny suggestion of just a trio of four-cylinder petrol engines would likely have left his machine completely immobile on anything other than a very hard surface. It is not known whether Jehlik ever sent his ideas to the Army or Government of any nation, and if he did, it certainly was not adopted by anyone. The idea was as impractical for him as it was for every other ‘big-wheel’ machine before or since. Even so, the work of men like Jehlik, submitting their ideas at a time of war for a brand new type of weapons, adds to the understanding of how armored warfare evolved from its crude and often ill-conceived beginnings.

Epilogue

Upon his death, Jehlik was described in a periodical of the day as being of the “best Bohemian blood” and his cemetery records provides a city of birth for ‘Antone J. Jehlik’ as Prague, in modern-day Czechia (Czech Republic). This means he had immigrated to the US as a child, where a name like Jehlička (a more common Czech form of the name) could be Americanized like so many other names were modified as new citizens arrived and became US citizens. Jehlik passed away on 28th September 1920 after being in ill-health for some time. He was laid to rest in the Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago. No trace of his pharmacy business remains today and Jehlik’s design has been forgotten.

Jehlik’s grave provides a birth date of 2nd May 1878, meaning he was just was just 42 years old when he died. He left his widow Bertha and a son who according to grave records was Eugene Franklin Jehlik. His death announcement in 1920 stated his son was 10, but Eugene’s grave shows a date of birth as 25th April 1918. The reason for this is unclear, but reporting mistakes are not particularly unusual. 1st Lieutenant Eugene Jehlik was killed on 28th November 1942 commanding an attack of M3 Lee tanks along a railroad track at Djedeida in Tunis, North Africa. He is buried at the Rock Island National Cemetery, Illinois.

Mortar and Pestle (appropriate for a pharmacist) monument for Anton J Jehlik at the Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago. Source: findagrave.com


Illustration of ‘Jehlik’s Armored Vehicle’ produced by Mr. C. Ryan, funded by our Patreon Campaign.

Specifications

Dimensions Roller Diameter: 20 to 30 feet (6.1 to 9.1 metres)
Roller Width: 50 to 100 feet (15.2 to 30.5 metres)
Crew ½ + up to ~15 men (Driver, Commander, 10-15 gunners)
Propulsion Three 4 cylinder petrol engines
Armament 5 large guns plus up to 5 rapid fire guns (machine guns)
Armor 6 to 8 inches (152 to 203 mm) steel

Sources

US Patent 1195680, Armored Vehicle, filed 10th January 1916, granted 22nd August 1916
Illinois State Board of Pharmacy. (1902). Annual Report. Vol.31
National Association of Retail Druggists (1920). Anton Jehlik. NARD Journal
A.J.Jehlik. Memorial ID 112057826. Findagrave.com
1 LT E.F. Jehlik. Memorial ID 54973417. Findagrave.com
Brig.Gen. Robinett, P. (2017). Armor Command: The Personal Story of a Commander of the 13th Armored Regiment, of CCB, 1st Armored Division, and of the Armored School during World War II. Arcole Publishing, USA
Atkinson, R. (2007). An Army At Dawn. Holt Paperbacks. USA

Categories
WW1 Austro-Hungarian Armor WW1 US Prototypes

Kempny’s Armored Automobile

Austria-Hungary/USA (1916-18)
Armored car – Blueprints Only

World War One had started much along the lines of previous wars. Political saber-rattling, followed by posturing, declaration of war and mobilization. Despite the growth in industrial potential across Europe at the turn of the century and the perfection of the machine gun as a practical weapon of war, the armies of Europe in 1914 went to war in much the same way as they had done in the previous century and yet were quickly faced with a new reality. Their men were easy prey to the rapid-firing effects of the machine guns.

There had been numerous ideas before the war for armored machines, but there was little impetus to develop one until the slaughter of WW1. That fate had befallen an Austrian called Gunther Burstyn, who had patented a very crude form of armored vehicle before the war but had done little with it. Another Austrian, Karl Kempny, far less well known or remembered, was living in Cleveland, Ohio, USA during the war. Kempny was not the visionary that Burstyn was, but was certainly quick to see the potential of armor. In 1916, he submitted his own ideas for an armored vehicle carrying heavy armament but still mounted on wheels. Future armored power was going to be best deployed on tracks, not wheels as envisaged by Kempny.

Divided Loyalties?

Little is known of Karl Kempny and any attempt to research the man online is sadly frustrated by a hockey player of the same last name playing for Cleveland. What is known of him, therefore, comes only from his patent applications. His name was given as Karl Kempny and he described himself as a subject of the Emperor of Austria, albeit living in Cleveland, Ohio, USA at the time. Whilst WW1 had started in the summer of 1914, and Austria-Hungary had been involved in military action right from the start, it was not until 1917 that the United States had come into the war. It was not, in fact, until 7th December 1917 that the US actually declared war against Austria-Hungary, even though it had already done so against Germany that April. At the time that the patents were submitted, therefore, between 20th November 1916 and 1st February 1917, there was no state of war between the USA and Austria-Hungary for Kempny to worry about. What is more interesting though is that this Austrian citizen was granted two patents for military designs in 1918 (including this armored automobile) at a time when the US was at war with his home country. To whom was the design intended then? Was Kempny, filing in 1916, suggesting his design was for use by Austria? If so, then he did not file an application for it there. It seems more likely that Kempny, a first-generation immigrant from Austria, not yet naturalized as a US citizen, filed his patent in his new adopted country for use either by them or for commercial purposes. Whilst Austria might have a claim on Kempny via ancestry, it would appear his vehicle is more appropriately assigned as an American one.

The Patents

As alluded to in the preceding paragraph, there was more than one patent. In fact, Kempny submitted three patents, two in 1916, and one in 1917, all for military equipment. The first, titled ‘moveable shield’, was one of dozens of wheeled, armored shields being suggested by a myriad of inventors, commentators, and military men throughout the First World War. Almost without fail, the designs were crude, clumsy and found no use. A man-propelled shield which was thick enough to be bulletproof was simply too cumbersome and heavy for even a small number of men to move. And that is before consideration is given to moving it over the tortuously muddy conditions of the battlefields of WW1 on the Western Front or the often vertigo-inducing mountainous terrain of the Southern (Italian) Front. Despite its flawed utility, his shield was nonetheless granted a patent in July 1917.

During the war, he filed his application for his armored automobile that December, followed three months later in February 1917 with a design for a bulletproof helmet. The helmet is certainly a novel design and one really has to wonder if Kempny was even serious with it given the design. Ludicrously tall and covered with spikes, the helmet consisted of a protective dome over the top of the head over which a taller helmet was fastened by means of springs. As if that was not impractical enough, the outside of this design was then clad all round the outer surface with spikes. All of that weight, precariously perched on top of the wearer’s head, was secured by just a single thin chin strap, meaning that as soon as the wearer might run or duck for cover, this spiked affair on top of his head would simply fall off and either impale him, another nearby soldier, or just get stuck in something. Truly, there can not be any helmet design which was less practical or realistic and perhaps that is why Kempny stopped submitting patents. He was just wasting his money on pure fantasy silliness.

Kempny’s ludicrous design for a bullet-proof helmet. US Patent 1251537

The design between the shield and the helmet though certainly has some elements of fantastic and impractical thinking, but also of some common sense and is worthy of some consideration.

Armored Automobile

Filed in December 1916, the design was not approved until October 1918, just before the end of hostilities. His design was specifically intended as a vehicle for repelling attacks by enemy infantry but also for mounting rapid-fire guns in bullet-proof mounts. The overall layout is clearly that of a standard truck with an engine at the front, directly over the front axle, mounting a pair of steered-wheels. A further axle at the back was also fitted with a pair of wheels.

The body of the vehicle was essentially a large rectangular prism, flat vertical sides and rear and a flat horizontal roof. The front though was different. A large rounded section angled steeply backwards, going from above the engine to the roofline with a large horizontal viewing cupola halfway up. This cupola was for the driver to see out of and appears to have been located centrally behind the engine. A second cupola, fully rotatable, was mounted behind the point where the angled front met the roof and would provide the vehicle commander with all-round vision. Located centrally and at the front, the driver should have had good visibility of the ground in front of the vehicle, but he would have been unable as Kempny drew on a large curved shield extending from the front of the vehicle and up to a level above that of his cupola. Thus, the driver’s view ahead would be severely limited. The purpose of that large curved section at the front was to primarily force down barbed down as the vehicle approached but it also served as armor for the front of the vehicle, deflecting bullets away from the men inside.

Access to the vehicle was to be via a single large rear hatch with vision provided by the cupolas and by various vision slots in the side of the hull and in the sponsons.

Kempny’s Armored Automobile as shown on US Patent 1282235. The removable socket-type sword bayonets sticking out of the side make a fearsome if somewhat useless impression.

No mention is made of armor except it would presumably have been armored to at least the level of being reasonably well protected against a service rifle. This would mean protection in the region of 8 mm or so of steel. As far as crew goes, there would need to be at least 4 men inside, a driver, a commander, and one man per gun. There is a lot of space inside the body and one use Kempny envisaged involved the removal of weapons and use as simply an armored lorry. This would suggest enough space for half-a-dozen or so more men even when armed.

Armament

The first and most obvious weapon on the vehicle are the spikes. These are actually sword bayonets mounted in rows along the side of triangular extensions attached to the side of the vehicle with the intention of making it harder to approach/climb when stationary and also to scythe through enemy troops when mobile. Thankfully, Kempny decided that these bayonets should be able to be folded away when not in use, or else the number of enemies they would be killing would surely only have been outweighed by the numbers of its own men, passers-by, and animals which would have been cut limb from limb as it went by. Despite the appearance of having a large cannon in each of the sponsons sticking out of the side, the Kempny design was to rely instead upon a pair of ‘rapid fire guns’ which could be machine guns or a cannon of some description with one in each sponson. Each gun was mounted on a rotating pedestal providing fire to the front, sides, and even to the rear. This type of mounting in an armored car, a sponson projecting from the side, was most likely the result of seeing exactly the same manner of armament carried on the first British tanks which were receiving a lot of press coverage at the time. As these were projecting from the side, it would mean the vehicle would be able to deliver fire straight ahead as well as to the sides. It would also affect lateral stability, as significant weight would be placed outside the wheelbase.

Kempny’s Armored Automobile as shown on US Patent 1282235. The interior layout shows the emphasis of the design on those large side sponsons for the armament.

A Lithuanian Connection?

One small added mystery to the identity of Karl Kempner comes from the signatories to his armored automobile patent, acting as witnesses: Stanley Stanslewicz, and A.B. Bartoszewicz. Bartozewicz was also a witness on his shield patent and appears to be Apdonas B. Bartoszewicz (also known as Apdonas B. Bartusevicius) who ran a Lithuanian-language publishing company in Cleveland which included the printing of the newspaper Santaika (Peace) in 1915 and which changed name to Dirva (Field) in 1916. The fact that Bartozewicz witnessed two of Kempny’s designs suggests that they knew each other reasonably well, although the nature of the relationship is unclear. Perhaps they were related or business partners, or that Bartozewicz was a notable person locally, we may simply never know. Nothing today remains of Kempny’s legacy and even Bartoszewicz is almost forgotten. Only his name remains on a building in Cleveland.

The physical legacy of Bartoszewicz in Cleveland.Source

Conclusion

Kempny’s shield added nothing new to the multitude of such designs and met with much the same fate. His helmet is memorable because it is simply such a totally impractical concept. His armored car however, is a different story. It was never built, never saw combat, and made no effect on the pursuit of the war so could easily be dismissed, but this would be wrong. His vehicle’s design clearly shows a popular mindset amongst designers at the time and just how little was understood about the true conditions at the front. Designs which could only operate on good surfaces and not the mud of Flanders are common, a complete misunderstanding of the conditions despite plenty of photographs available.

Yet, despite that misunderstanding, Kempny did foresee a multi-purpose vehicle, one suitable for carrying men and goods as much as for combat, a vehicle with weapons mounted in sponsons projecting from the side in the same manner as was used on tanks and an appreciation of the problems of barbed wire.

Kempny wanted to simply crush it down and roll over it, things which were tried and failed. The influence of the British tanks of 1916 can even be seen in the design, yet overall the design was still a retrograde one.

It is not known who, if anyone, may have seen Kempny’s design at the time and it is unlikely that it had any influence on following designs, especially the wholly impractical idea of the sword bayonets on the side, but Kempny’s design illustrates the time well – a no doubt well-meaning amateur designer, a first generation immigrant to the US trying to have his voice heard during the maelstrom of war. Whilst his design for an armored automobile went nowhere, received no orders, and was never built, Kempny’s armored automobile provides an insight into how the war was still being seen on the home front at the time.



Illustration of Kempny’s Armored Automobile produced by Mr. C. Ryan, funded by our Patreon Campaign.

Specifications

Crew est. est. 4 driver, commander, 2 x gunners) + ~ 6 men
Armament multiple rows of sword bayonets, 2 x rapid-fire guns
Armor Bulletproof
Engine a ‘suitable motor’

Sources

US Patent 1234174 ‘Moveable Shield’, filed 20th November 1916, granted 24th July 1917
US Patent 1251537 ‘Bullet Proof Helmet’, filed 1st February 1917, granted 1st July 1918
US Patent 1282235 ‘Armored Automobile’, filed 18th December 1916, granted 22nd October 1918
‘Dirva’, Ohio History Central


Categories
WW1 US Prototypes

William H. Norfolk’s War Weapons

USA ww1 USA (1915-16)
None Built

When the United States entered World War 1 (1914-1919) on 2nd April 1917, it did so without any tanks or conventional armored vehicles outside of a few armored cars and trucks. Artillery was either horse-drawn or towed by unarmored lorries and infantry assaults would have to take place without armor protection. Whereas America’s allies, Great Britain, France, and Italy, had all quickly realized the butcher’s bill which followed unprotected infantry attacks meant a need for some armored vehicle, the US entered the war with none of that experience. That is not to say that there were no designs and suggestions in existence for such weapons though. One designer who submitted a variety of war weapons was William Norfolk of San Pedro, California.

Norfolk’s powered ‘dirigible’ float for deploying a net (left) and deployed from a building onshore (right). Source: US Patent US1181339

The Mine and Submarine Destroyer

In light of the raging conflict on mainland Europe, William Norfolk submitted a design for what was effectively a type of net. It was designed to counter enemy naval vessels and torpedoes. Filed on 25th August 1915, Norfolk submitted his idea for a cable-net deployed by means of a powered float driven electrically. This float could be steered from shore or even a ship and would tow out behind it a long cable-net designed to ensnare an enemy ship or torpedo. The net would be prevented from sinking by virtue of a series of buoyant floats and could even be fitted with magnets to make sure the net would attach to an enemy ship or torpedo. He must have been confident as to the utility of such a device, as he filed a patent for it in Canada on 6th November 1916 as well. However, what may have seemed like an innovative idea resulted in no further development.

Trench Artillery

The Mine and Submarine Destroyer net patent was granted to Norfolk on 2 May 1916 (US Patent). Sometime between then and September 1916, Norfolk turned his attention towards the war on land. Characterized by lines of trenches covered with belts of barbed wire and covered by machine-gun fire, no-man’s land was deadly for exposed men. Whilst the amount of information coming back from the Western Front was heavily censored in the media (primarily newspapers and newsreels), there was no concealing the scale of the losses and the primary reasons for them. The British had started their formal Landships program in February 1915, but this was still secret, including the development of the first characteristic quasi-rhomboid shaped ‘tanks’ at the end of that year. This secrecy continued through to September 1916 with the first tank deployment on the Western Front, but even then it was some time before a clear idea of what these machines really looked like became public knowledge.

Knowing this, it can be said with some certainty that Norfolk’s concept for breaking this stalemate and the static war was not inspired by the development of the British or anyone else. What he produced was, in fact, very similar to a plan by the British in 1940 for a trench digging assault machine. That machine, known under the codename of Cultivator Number 6, was very similar to Norfolk’s and perhaps indicates that Norfolk’s idea was perhaps not quite as ‘off-the-wall’ as it may have appeared at first glance.

Design

Norfolk’s machine, like the future Cultivator Number 6 a quarter-century later, was a subterranean assault machine. It did not go underground but used the ground as its armor. The means of advance was simple in concept, mounted on wheels with traction from the front pair, the machine was driven by an engine and was faced with a full width cutting face consisting of what could be described as a very wide track with cutting teeth. Driven by a separate motor, this ‘cutting-track’ ran from the bottom upwards, progressively digging away the face of the soil and throwing it into a hopper (identified as point 46 on Canadian Patent CA174919) and from there onto an outwardly facing conveyor belt which threw the soil off to one side. In this manner, the machine not only dug a wide trench as it headed towards the enemy, but also created a berm along one side of the trench which would further conceal the vehicle from enemy fire. It is important to note that the height of the machine above the ground could be varied by adjusting the pitch of the cutting face so it could self-dig down up to a maximum depth of being level with the ground. No dimensions are given for this digging machine but based on an estimate of the wheel (item 74) as 1.5 to 2 m in diameter it would have an estimated height of around 3 m or so for the whole machine – certainly a very deep trench although it could, if needed, operate with a portion above ground in order to make use of its machine guns.

Norfolk’s Trench Artillery machine of 1916. Source: Canadian Patent CA174919

Weaponry

While the general layout may seem straightforward, the rest of the design, including the armament, was anything but straightforward or conventional.

Firstly, the primary armament was a ‘disappearing gun’ mounted on a central turntable on a triangular mounting. This unspecified caliber of gun was to be loaded under the cover offered by the machine and would then rise up and fire, destroying enemy strongpoints. The armored casemate was also meant to carry a series of machine guns mounted through circular loopholes along each side, although the type and number were not mentioned. Importantly, it should also be noted that the casemate had no protective roof – a significant flaw for a weapon below ground level and exposed to shrapnel and debris from above.

The final weapon system, for lack of a better description, consisted of a pair of catapults. Along the sides of the casemate, at the level of the bottom of the frame, were two ‘arms’ connected to a driven gear. Each arm was held down in the horizontal position during movement but, when required to be used, could be driven upwards-acting around the driven gear, propelling what appears on the patent diagram to be a large disc. Each ‘disc’ is described as an ‘Enfilading Machine’ and these machines were subject to a later patent application by Norfolk.

Each ‘Trench Artillery’ machine carried a pair of catapults with a single Enfilading Machine at the end of each one. When the machine closed on the enemy lines, it could activate these catapult arms either together or independently and these would quickly lift the Enfilading Machines up to the surface and onto the ground in front of the machine.

Norfolk’s Trench Artillery machine of 1916 from above showing the position of the main gun in its ‘disappeared’ position. The two large objects in the back corners are not wheels but the tops of the Enfilading Machines carried on the Trench Artillery machine. Source: Canadian Patent CA174919

The Enfilading Machines

This complicated facet of the design was so involved that Norfolk submitted a completely separate patent for the Enfilading Machine in its own right. The date for that patent application is February 1916, whilst the Trench Artillery Machine is September 1916 (Canada) and no trace of a filing in the USA. The Enfilading Machines, therefore, predate the Trench Artillery machine, which served as much as a launching platform for the enfilading machines as an armored war-machine in its own right.

Just as the Trench Artillery machine predated the Cultivator machine of World War 2, this Enfilading Machine predated another WW2 project known as the Great Panjandrum. Just like the Panjandrum, the Enfilading Machine was based on the principle of an unmanned wheel rolling towards the enemy. The Enfilading Machine though, was significantly more complex than the Panjandrum, which was little more than a barrel full of explosives on two rocket-propelled wheels. Norfolk’s idea was an entire weapon system in itself, consisting of a pair of traction wheels spaced slightly apart but on a common axle. Mounted between these two wheels was a frame to which was attached a trailing wheel for balance (fitted with ‘spurs’ for traction), but also an electric motor to drive the machine forwards, delivering power to the axle and wheels respectively. Around the periphery of each wheel was a pair of concentric circles, each made from 64 recessed tubular chambers. These 128 chambers were actually short barrels for what was a single shot charge firing a single cylindrical shell or bullet perpendicular to the direction of travel of the wheel. Across both sides of the machine, this meant 256 shots to be fired out to the sides. Ignition was electrical and triggered by means of a timer.

The outline of the Enfilading Machine (facing left to right) showing the pair of concentric shot-chambers around the periphery of the wheel. Source: US Patent 1227487 of 1916

Other weaponry for the Enfilading Machine was in the form of spherical exploding balls (shells) which were mounted into recess cavities in the outer face of each wheel, with 24 on each side for a total of 48. Each shell was detonated by a rather crude burning fuze ignited when it was launched by means of explosives. This was supposed to project the shell out to the sides, although the patent drawing shows them being launched in, at least, pairs at a time on each side. Just like the shot-chambers, to launch the spherical bombs chambers these were triggered electrically by means of a timer. The use of the timer suggests that it could be ‘programmed’ to travel a set distance before detonating some or all of its weaponry to the sides.

Cross-section of the Enfilading Machine showing the rectangular launching chambers for the pairs of spherical bombs to be launched from each side. Source: US Patent 1227487 of 1916

Conclusion

The Enfilading Machine was an interesting design in its own right and predates the Grand Panjandrum by a quarter of a century. The Grand Panjandrum proved impossible to control and was significantly wider and simpler than this Enfilading Machine, which was a serious flaw in its design. The concept was clearly not fundamentally bad, launching a remote demolition or assault weapon was, and still is, a viable tactic but the execution of the idea was completely unworkable. The machine was far too complex with too many weapons and working parts and mechanisms for a disposable weapon. It was far too narrow to avoid simply flopping over on its side on anything other than a perfectly flat surface and the single, heavy bearing surface from the two wheels would simply be hopeless in anything other than hard ground, as it would otherwise just sink and become stuck. The final criticism of the Enfilading Machine is the armament, which was too much and too weak. Considering the use of trenches rather than exposed troops, anything other than a direct landing of the wheel into a trench would produce nothing more than a lot of bullets fired into thin air and bombs landing harmlessly outside of a trench. The single, large high-explosive charge of the Panjandrum was simply a far better idea and a more effective weapon. One final note in favor of the Enfilading Machine though might be the trailing wheel. Acting as a counterbalance to help keep it on track, it has to be considered whether such an addition to the Grand Panjandrum might have helped rectify its flaw where it would lurch off to one side, becoming a potential hazard for the forces launching it.

Norfolk’s Enfilading Machine attacking a pair of flimsy barbed wire fences. In reality, barbed wire often formed very large and dense entanglements far removed from what appears to be a fence more suitable for restraining cattle than for warfare as depicted here. Source: US Patent 1227487 of 1916

For the Trench Artillery machine, a conclusion is equally nuanced. The concept of a giant digger approaching below the ground surface towards the enemy was clearly viable. The Cultivator No.6 proved this was possible, but where the Cultivator was tracked, the Trench Artillery was wheeled and used small wheels at that. Just like the Enfilading Machine, it would have become hopelessly stuck in anything other than very hard ground and the vulnerability of such a machine to shrapnel shells exploding above it is also patently obvious too. Once more, the idea was not completely unworkable but the solution offered was.

Neither the Enfilading Machine nor the Trench Artillery machine should be ignored or written off as a crazy idea though. Both have some merit and, in 1915-1916, they provide an interesting insight as to one of the possible solutions being considered to the problems of trench warfare. In some ways, the ideas are less crazy than some official projects which were attempted by the French or British and really present a picture of how the war was being viewed outside of the front where technical solutions to problems of machine guns and wire were being presented. Neither machine was ever built and far more sensible and better-considered ideas did prevail. However, a failure to consider even some of these flawed ideas does a disservice to men like Norfolk, his ideas, and to properly appreciate how difficult it really was to develop tanks as they first appeared on the battlefields of France in 1917.

Post-Script for Norfolk

William Norfolk had no luck with his military designs but he did submit one further patent, albeit not a military-related one. In 1930, he submitted an idea for a crack-filling and sealing device. It is not known what became of Norfolk, but perhaps with his crack-sealing invention, he found some success with his innovations.



Illustration of William Norfolk’s Trench Artillery Machine based on the design of 1916 produced by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon campaign.

Sources

US Patent US1181339 Mine and Submarine Destroyer, filed 25th August 1915, granted 2nd May 1916
Canadian Patent CA174919 Trench Artillery, filed 21st September 1916, granted 6th February 1917
Canadian Patent CA176438 Mine and Submarine Destroyer, filed 6th November 1916, granted 17th April 1917
US Patent US1227487 Enfilading Machine, filed 23rd February 1916, granted 22nd May 1917


Categories
WW1 British Prototypes WW1 US Prototypes

Kupchak War Automobile

UK 1914 United Kingdom/Canada/USA (1917)
Armored tractor – 1 Prototype

In April 1917, World War I was in full swing with devastating losses on the Western Front and the United States had just declared war on Germany. Tanks had started to be used in combat and generated an enormous amount of interest in the newspapers, magazines, and newsreels of the day. The result was a response from the inventive minded members of the public to get creative with many of their own designs. One of these designs came from the hand of Stephen Kupchak, a British citizen living in Rosevear, Alberta, Canada, who submitted his design for a patent on the 17th April 1917 in the USA.
Kupchak did not call his tracked machine a tank though, instead, he called it a ‘War-Automobile’. Although it was never built, it remains an interesting development at a time of great inventiveness and learning in the rights and wrongs of tank design.


Profile and top-down cut-away schematic. Photo: Patent US1253605

Layout

The basic shape of the machine is crude, a giant box on tracks. Kupchak has adopted a rounded front with vertical faces which extended along the sides and a vertical rear. The structure was made of “suitable armor plate” of an unspecific thickness. Inside the curved front section, was mounted a “rapid fire gun mounting a silencer”, although a caliber was not specified.
Access to the machine would be provided by two large rectangular doors in the sides located in the front half of the vehicle. On the roof of the machine was a “conning tower” fitted with a variety of slots for the commander to see out of. It is not mentioned if it rotatable and, as no firing ports are obvious in the drawings, it would appear to have been simply for observation.

Holt suspension seen from the side is quite noticeably very different to the Kupchak design with multiple small wheels and with track tensioning taking place at the end idler.


Illustration of the Kupchak War Automobile. Produced by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker, funded by our Patreon Campaign.

Suspension

Online it has been said that the chassis on which the ‘tank’ is based is that of the Holt tractor, but this is not described in this way in the 1917 US patent filing. The patent spends a lot of time describing the track mechanisms stating the added advantage that it could be tensioned from inside the machine without getting out. Certainly, in 1917, this was something which could not be done on the existing British tank models and had the advantage that the crew would not be exposed to fire just to tension the track.

Details of the Kupchak track tensioning system. Photo: Patent US1253605
The track tensioning system of the Kupchak design was crude but ingenious, and completely different from that of the Holt chassis, showing that whatever relationship this design had to the Holt was superficial at best. Unlike a British tank of the period, which used a large adjusting nut from outside to move the entire idler further out, Kupchak instead opted for an unusual winding system. The three extremely small wheels, which also provided the suspension for the machine, were mounted on a vertical rod which could move up and down with undulations in the ground and return to position via a spring. The initial position, however, was modified by means of a winding handle operated from inside the machine. This had the effect of jacking the machine further up on the wheel meaning the track-run was longer and thus tensioning the track in the process. Quite how practical this system would actually have been, or whether, indeed, it could even work, is not clear, as there is no additional gearing to provide the mechanical advantage which might be needed to elevate a heavy vehicle in such a way.

The front-mounted track tensioner on the British Mk.I male tank on display at Bovington. Photo: Mark Nash

Conclusion

The Kupchak design is hard to judge. Clearly, it was drawn at a time when tank technology was in its infancy and has significant problems, but it also offers an interesting insight into the technology available at the time. The problems of tightening tracks and providing suspension for a track-laying vehicle were clearly not completely understood, yet the solutions are both inventive and unusual. Tim Rigsby, in ‘WW1 Landship Design’, states that Kupchak was one of the designers (with responsibility for the hull) for a rejected 200 ton ‘Trench Destroyer’ idea and that he submitted the design of his vehicle to the British War Office in 1918. According to Rigsby, the War Office did not reject it, but simply asked for a full-size machine for demonstration purposes to be built, something that Kupchak, with limited resources, could not do. Thus, according to Rigsby, the project died but none of that account can be verified and is still being investigated.

Sources

US Patent US1253605 filed 17th April 1917, granted 15th January 1918
WW1 Landship design, Tim Rigsby
www.landships.info