WW1 American 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:

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.


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.


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.
Frank Shuman’s Solar Arabian Dream, Jeremy Shere. LINK

WW1 American 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 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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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:

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


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


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.
1 LT E.F. Jehlik. Memorial ID 54973417.
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

WW1 American prototypes WW1 Austro-Hungarian Armor

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.


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


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.


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’


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

WW1 American 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.


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


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


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.


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

WW1 American prototypes WW1 British 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


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.


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


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.


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

WW1 American prototypes WW1 Austro-Hungarian Armor

Gonsior, Opp, and Frank War Automobile

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

North Dakota might not be the most populous or wealthiest state in America but, in 1916, it did produce a turreted armor car design courtesy of three Austro-Hungarians living there. At that time, the United States had not even entered the war, so the intended user of the vehicle was most likely their homeland.

The designers of this machine were Joseph Gonsior, Friedrich Opp, and William Frank, all residing in the town of Medina. North Dakota might have been thousands of miles from the fighting of WW1, but war sparks the inventive mind regardless of distance, and these three men determined that their contribution to the war effort would be to:

“provide an armored automobile adapted for use in time of war whereby the occupants thereof may travel in proximity to the enemy and operate rapid firing guns under cover of the armor which is provided”

The Design

The design was filed on the 23rd March 1916 (granted 14th March 1916). It was clearly based on a four-wheeled chassis, presumably from a commercial truck, which formed the basis of the vehicle with the engine at the front driving, via an external chain, the rear wheels, meaning the vehicle would be a 4 x 2 configuration. The driver’s position is at the front left-hand side of the vehicle in a low profile position and provided with a 180-degree vision slit.

Internal view of the Gonsior, Opp, Frank War automobile showing the driver’s position and the unusual oscillating turret design. Image: Patent US1204758
Externally, the machine is a little unremarkable in terms of layout with the engine at the front along with the steering, the driver behind the bulkhead behind the engine and drive, delivered via chains to the rear axle. This is exactly how a standard truck of that era was arranged and the body is simply a truck in principle, albeit one clad in armor. There is, however, a distinctive and large frusto-conical (a cone shape with the top cut-off) structure at the back, directly over the rear axle. The cylinder tapers slightly from the base to the roof line where it is topped with a circular turret. The turret, though, is even more unusual than may appear at first glance. Instead of simply being rotatable, it also has a fixed gun and the entire turret elevates and depresses around a common pivot point. It is, in fact, one of the first known oscillating turret designs, although the elevation and depression of the turret was to be by means of hand cranks. The gun, fixed, was simply described as a rapid firing gun and had a conical shaped mantlet covering the junction between the gun and the turret, as would be expected within a patent as patents tend to outline general provisions and specifications rather than final drawings or details. By stating ‘rapid firing gun’ the patent applicants left it open as to what weapon could be used from a machine-gun to a small cannon.

Exterior of the War Automobile showing the large access door low down on the right hand side. Image: Patent US1204758
Access to the machine was provided by a large rectangular upwards-opening door at the approximate mid-way point longitudinally on the right-hand side of the car. No other hatches are described or drawn, meaning the crew of at least two men (driver and gunner), would both have to use the same door. This would have certainly been a problem in the event of catching fire or rolling over onto the right-hand side.
Three large vision slits were arranged around the exterior of the turret at 12 o’clock, 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock respective to the position of the gun. The only other thing of note about the design is the deliberate inclusion of a space between the driver and the frusto-conical turret structure which was presumably for the storage of ammunition for the main gun. No armor other than ‘bulletproof’ is specified and there is no indication of the expected performance of such as it would be dependent mainly on the vehicle on which this might be based.

Rendition of the Gonsior, Opp, and Frank War Automobile by Mr. C. Ryan, funded by our Patreon Campaign


The designers, Gonsior, Opp, and Frank, were an inventive trio filing patents in March 1916 for a recoil mount for ordnance (Gonsior and Opp) and a revolver-sword (Gonsior, Frank and a third person, Christian Schneider). All three declared themselves as subjects of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary in March 1916 but, by May 1916, William Frank was a US citizen. Regardless of the relative merits and faults of their designs, none are known to have attracted any interest or entered production.

Two more of the designs from 1916 from the designers for a recoil mounting for guns and a combat weapon. Images: Patents 1204757 and 1192888 respectively


The design of the armored car, even though it was never built, is still important. It is both simple and elegant and, whilst having only a single access hatch is undeniably a flaw, the overall layout was, for 1916, very good and the use of an oscillating turret very novel. Had the armored car ever attracted any interest, then, without doubt, the lack of hatches would have become obvious to the makers and rectified. The lack of all-wheel drive though and the use of a commercial contemporary truck as a base, would likely have left the vehicle relatively slow and poor off-road capabilities with all of the weight of the armor base and turret over the rear axle.


US Patent US1204757 filed 20th March 1916, granted 14th November 1916
US Patent US1204758 filed 23rd March 1916, granted 14th November 1916
US Patent US1192888 filed 27th May 1916, granted 1st August 1916

WW1 American prototypes

Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank

USA ww1 USA (1918) Prototype – 1 built


In 1917, when the American Expeditionary Force reached the shores of France, not a single tank was available to these units. Plans were made to produce some foreign-designed vehicles, but various difficulties and the American faith in their own capabilities lead to the design of several home-grown tanks.
The value of French light tanks like the Renault Ft was observed, being easy to produce in numbers and not requiring very powerful engines. However, it was noted that their trench crossing capabilities were inadequate.
US Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank 1953
Two American soldiers climbing over the US Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank at the US Army Ordinance Proving Grounds, Aberdeen in 1953
The Pioneer Tractor Company from Winona, Minnesota, proposed a rather strange looking vehicle. Trying to mimic the trench-crossing abilities of the British rhomboid tanks while producing a lightweight vehicle led to one of the most distinctive prototypes of the war. While the tracks encircled a structure of the shape of its British inspiration, the crew was encased in an armored box at the center of the vehicle, with a gun turret on top and an engine on each side of the compartment. The driver had a small horizontal vision slit at the front of the tank in the upper middle section of the armored box. The commander/gunner had a vision slit in the turret.
The tracks were carried on rigidly mounted rollers installed on a tubular frame covered with wood. The pipe construction would allow for the tank to be dismantled and shipped relatively easily and then be reassembled on arrival in theater. Another advantage to this tubular design was that if one of the pipes was damaged it could easily be replaced. By using wood, steel pipes and standard plumbing fixtures the materials and maintenance skills needed to construct, maintain and repair the Skeleton Tank were minimal.
Unlike earlier WW1 and later WW2 tanks, it could wade through deep water. It had over three feet clearance with only its track and frame making contact with the water. The open design of the tank meant that what was behind the tank was visible through the tank. It did not need a camouflage to merge in with its location.
The Skeleton Tank was also called the Spider Tank by local journalists
The Skeleton Tank was also called the Spider Tank by local journalists
The crew of two were protected by 0.5 in (12.7 mm) of armor. The driver sat to the front, with the gunner behind him, manning the turret. The proposed armament was a single .30 cal machine gun. One Beaver engine and its radiator was mounted inside each side of the armored compartments, while the transmissions were in a separate compartment at the rear of the vehicle.
The transmission had two forward and one rear gears, giving a grand maximum speed of 8 km/h (5 mph). Only one vehicle was built, sporting a dummy gun and turret. It cost $15,000 to construct the one prototype which is just under a quarter of a million US dollars in today’s money. The prototype was ready for trials by October 1918 but when the Armistice was signed in November 1918 most development programs were canceled. It was never used in active service.
It was paraded through the streets of Winona, Minnesota as part of it’s Victory Parade celebrations. This was reported in the newspapers. The tank went by different names in those reports: Skeleton Tank and Spider Tank were names used. The Skeleton Tank name was the most common used but it’s origins are unclear.

Who came up with the idea of a military tank first?

This is a disputed subject. The vice president and manager of the US Pioneer Tractor Company, Mr Edwin Wheelock, was contracted to manufacture the prototype Skeleton Tank. He insisted that he completed the blueprints for the Skeleton Tank and brought them over to England months before British Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton had come up with his idea that an armoured vehicle was necessary to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare by forcing its way through barbed wire obstacles, climbing over trenches and destroying or crushing machine gun nests.
Swinton’s proposal was submitted in writing to the British War Office on 20th October 1914. He was serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1914 and had seen how bad conditions were on the front line. Swinton had seen American Holt agricultural tracked tractors and recommended that they be armored and armed with machine guns and an artillery gun.
In August 1914, Wheelock lost a contract to sell Pioneer tractors in Canada because of war being declared in Europe. He started to design a war machine based on the caterpillar tracks used on his tractors but lengthened to run along a rhomboid shaped framework. He tried to sell his idea to the Canadians but again they were not interested.
Meanwhile, in England, the British Government Landships Committee granted William Foster & Company of Lincoln the contract to build the first prototype British tank called the ‘Number One Lincoln Machine’. This happened in February 1915.
Back in Minnesota, Wheelock hired Mr. Frances J Lowe to try and sell Pioneer tractors and his war machine design to the British. Lowe took the blueprints and some tractors to England. In April 1915, he had a meeting with Colonel Sir Henry Capel-Lofft Holden, director of Mechanical Transport at the War Office in London.
Holden dismissed the design as being unworkable because, with the initially proposed weight of 25 tons, it was too heavy to cross bridges currently found in Belgium and France. Lowe, in a later interview for an American newspaper, said he was then introduced to a Lieutenant Walter Wilson, a Royal Navy Officer who was also an engineer. Wilson took the blueprints to study them further and was told that he would contact him if the War Office wanted to place an order. Lowe was never contacted.
Wilson went on to develop the first British tanks with William Tritton of William Foster & Co in Lincoln. The ‘Number One Lincoln Machine’ prototype was completed on 9th September 1915. It did not look like Wheelock’s design. The second prototype nicknamed ‘Little Willie’ did not resemble Wheelock’s design either. Walter Wilson’s third prototype called ‘Mother’, completed in December 1915 used a lengthened track to run along a rhomboid shaped framework to give the tank better cross country performance.
It was not until newspaper reports and photographs reached Minnesota of tanks being used for the first time in battle did Wheelock get a glimpse of what the British Mark I tank looked like. He was shocked at the similarity to his war machine design. He read that a £10,000 financial reward had been offered to the person who came up with the idea of using a tank in battle. He sent Lowe back to England to claim that reward and find out why his company had not been given the construction contract.
Lowe was not given any information. He could not even find out what happened to the company’s blueprints he had submitted. Because of the War, nearly all information was classified as ‘secret’. Wheelock made a formal claim for the £10,000 prize money but after two different hearings a British Prize Court awarded the money to Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton.
Wheelock’s claim was not backed up by validated documentation. He never filed a patent or kept a copy of his blueprints. Lowe said he handed the only copy to the Wilson and was never given it back.
Realistically the British Government, when at war, would not have entered negotiations with a private company of a neutral state to develop and build a new weapon. That company would not legally be able to sell that weapon without breaching its country’s neutrality. There was also a risk, in 1914, of America entering an alliance with the German Empire and that new weapon being used by the enemy. Communications and logistics problems also made the idea of a contract being awarded to an American company not practicable in 1914.


Edwin M. Wheelock and the Skeleton Tank by Major Dennis Gaare -Armor – Jan-Feb 2002
Tank Warfare: The story of Tanks in the great War by F Mitchell
Was former Winonian battle tank inventor? by B Manderfield Winona Sunday News 22 Aug 1971
American claims share in Prize of $150,000 for Tank invention – NY Times 28th Nov 1925
Tanks in the Great War by J.F.C Fuller
Man who designed war tractor, former Winonian, never received reward for tank’s invention – The Winiona Republican 31 June 1942
Winiona sees Spider Tank – The Winona Independent 12 Nov 1918


Dimensions (L x W x H) 25ft x 8ft 5in x 9ft 6in
(7.62m x 2.56m x 2.89m)
Total weight, battle ready 9 tons
Crew 2 (commander, driver)
Propulsion Two Beaver 4 cylinder water cooled petrol/gasoline engines 50hp
Speed 5 mph (8.85 km/h)
Fuel tank 17 gallons
Fuel consumption 2 miles per gallon
Operational range 34 miles (55km)
Armament .30 Cal machine gun
Armor 0.5 in (12.7 mm)
Total production 1 prototype


The Pioneer Skeleton tank showing off its tube structure. It is facing to the right. The crew compartment is in the middle and the transmission box is on the left, at the rear of the tank.
US Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank
Front view of the WW1 Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank at the US Army Ordinance Proving Grounds, Aberdeen. (photo – Bill Maloney)
Rear view of the Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank
Rear view of the Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank at the US Army Ordinance Proving Grounds, Aberdeen. (photo – Bill Maloney)
WW1 Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank being moved from US Army Ordinance Proving Ground Aberdeen to Fort Lee
WW1 Pioneer Tractor Skeleton Tank being moved from US Army Ordinance Proving Ground Aberdeen to Fort Lee, VA, USA. This vehicle is currently stored and is not publicly visible.
Skeleton Tank now sits in a tent at Fort Lee
Front View – The Skeleton Tank now sits in a tent at Fort Lee.
The Skeleton Tank now sits in a tent at Fort Lee.
Rear View – The Skeleton Tank now sits in a tent at Fort Lee.

Where is the Skeleton Tank now?

The vehicle was at the US Army Ordinance Proving Grounds in Aberdeen kept in the open exposed to the elements. In the early 2000s it was restored. All its parts are original except the wooden frame which had rotted and needed replacing. It has now been moved to Fort Lee.
It is currently out of storage and on display in the Fort Lee military base World War 1 training gallery being utilized for Ordnance students training. This vehicle is currently not on public display. Please send us any new photographs you have of it in its new location.

Tank Hunter WW1
Tank Hunter: World War One

By Craig Moore

The First World War’s fierce battles saw the need to develop military technology beyond anything previously imagined: as exposed infantry and cavalry were mowed down by relentless machine-gun attacks, so tanks were developed. Stunningly illustrated in full colour throughout, Tank Hunter: World War One provides historical background, facts and figures for each First World War tank as well as the locations of any surviving examples, giving you the opportunity to become a Tank Hunter yourself.

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WW1 American prototypes

White 4×2 Model 1917

USA USA (1917) – Experimental vehicle – 1 prototype built

Not needed

The White 4×2 Armored Car model 1917 was built on a commercial chassis, from which it also kept the 45 hp White engine. This powerpack had 4 cylinders and a carburetor and was mounted at the front of the vehicle. The vehicle received an armored body, made from around 30 panels, made by the Van Dorn Iron Works from Cleveland, Ohio. Protection was between 3.8 and 6.5 mm (0.15-0.25 in), barely sufficient against small-arms fire and shrapnel. There were no side doors and access was granted through a single one at the rear. A small, one man revolving turret was mounted on top of the crew compartent, and it was armed with a rifle-caliber machine-gun.
The weight of the vehicle reached 3300 kg (7430 lbs) and it had double tires on its rear axle, in order to support the weight of the rear fighting compartment. The driver and co-driver, sitting side by side, could see through armored shutters and small side windows with armored flaps. Armored doors also protected the radiator and granted access to the White liquid cooled engine. The wheels were spoked and had mudguards. The crew was of three, including the machine-gunner.
The single prototype, which was assigned the number 11508, was tested at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1917-18. However, there was no obvious need for an armored car at the time, and the White model 1917 was never cleared for mass production.


On War Wheels
On Aviarmor

White 1917
White 4×2 armored car model 1917.

White 4x2 model 1917 with open shutter and radiator hatch - Photo: Armored Car, A History of American Wheeled Combat Vehicles by R.P.HunnicuttThe White model 1917 with closed hatches - Photo: Armored Car, A History of American Wheeled Combat Vehicles by R.P.HunnicuttA rear view of the White model 1917 with the crew door open - Photo: Armored Car, A History of American Wheeled Combat Vehicles by R.P.HunnicuttA rare photo of a White 4x2 model 1917 with its armament in place - Photo: Armored Car, A History of American Wheeled Combat Vehicles by R.P.HunnicuttProbably the best known side profile of the prototype - Photo: Armored Car, A History of American Wheeled Combat Vehicles by R.P.Hunnicutt

White 4×2 model 1917 specifications

Weight 3.3 tons (7430 lbs)
Crew 3 (driver, machine-gunner, commander)
Propulsion White, carburetor, 4-cylinder, liquid-cooled, 45 hp power
Speed (road) 64 km/h (40 mph)
Armament 7.62 mm (0.3 in) machine-gun
Armor 3.8-6.5 mm (0.15-0.25 in)
Production 1 prototype