WW1 US Prototypes

Lauterbur’s Tractor

United States of America (1918)
Tank – None Built

At the start of 1918, WW1 was by no means waning in terms of combat or intensity. The war had, to that point, been characterized in the public mindset by the slaughter in Belgium and France. This picture was one of trench lines of men just a few hundred meters apart, unable to make the breakthrough they needed thanks to defenses in depth, barbed wire, and the firepower of the modern machine gun. Tanks, as unveiled on the battlefield in September 1916, had begun to make a real difference in the war. The armies of Germany, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, and Italy were tired by 1918. Russia had dropped out of the war, but the United States, a relatively youthful imperial power, was coming to the war in its place, having declared war in April 1917. Despite this, the US forces headed for Europe did not get to see combat for over a year, first seeing action at Cantigny in May 1918. That year was the first year the US forces got their first tanks too, but those did not get used until the last few weeks of the shooting war, in September 1918. There was therefore a gap between the first tanks of 1916, America’s war entry, and their first tank use. A few inventors and designers came to this American tank void. Some of them had an engineering background, or a military background, or both. One of them, Frank Lauterbur, designed machines relating to the mixing and baking of bread dough – he too designed a tank. A tank more like a rolling pin than one of 1916, but undoubtedly an armored rolling weapon of war.

Mr. X.

The man behind this machine was Francis ‘Frank’ Xavier Lauterbur from the town of Sidney, Ohio, USA. Lauterbur was born in August 1887 at Fort Laramaie in Ohio, to Paul (b.1855, d.1932) and Margarettia ‘Margaret’ (neé Hillans) Lauterbur (b.1859, d.1925). This meant that, when he filed his patent for his ‘Tractor’ on 6th February 1918, he was around 31 years old, putting him at the upper end of the age group liable for conscription to go and fight in the war.*

(*The first conscription under the Selective Service Act of 1917 was 5th June 1917 for all men aged between 21 and 31 – he would have been 29 or 30 years old at the time).

Lauterbur died in October 1932, aged just 45 years old, leaving his wife Wilhelmina (b.1900, d. 1970). Between 1918 and when he passed away in 1932, Lauterbur left a legacy of over 50 patents for machines relating to the mixing of dough, involving variously beaters and clutches, variable speed rotating members, sieves and sifting, weighing and blending. Whilst the flour mixing or bread industry might not seem like a likely source from which a tank might originate, the mechanisms designed for transmitting torque to a mixer, belts, pulleys, and drive are not small things in engineering terms. Such knowledge and skills in engineering relatively mundane or non-military equipment certainly would have left Lauterbur with more than a passing knowledge of technology when he designed this vehicle. His intention was to produce a “small ‘tank’ for military purposes and adapted to operate either as a unicycle or as a tractor”.

Composite image digitally manipulated from US Patent US1313095 to show the complete frontal view of Lauterbur’s design.
Composited image digitally manipulated from US Patent US1313095 to show the complete frontal view of Lauterbur’s design as a 4-wheel vehicle.

The Rolling Pin

The design was to be built around the concept of a rolling cylinder, like a rolling pin. This cylinder would be either a pair of what he called “tractor wheels” or, in extended form, made from four or more of these wheels. They were not tractor wheels in the sense of a normal farmer’s tractor, but wide hollow wheels running around the outside of the cylinder on low-friction bearings and to the surface of which were a series of 3 circumferential rows of spikes. These spikes formed the tractive element of the wheels, as they would be stabbed into the ground during travel to provide purchase on whatever surface it was passing over.

This would also, therefore, mean the vehicle would cause potential damage to roads or other fixed infrastructure on route towards a battle, something which would be a problem for any conventional forces which may be following.

The vehicle itself was this simple cylinder about which the wheels rotated and the rounded ends both featured a single hinged door with a horizontal slot in it from which the crew could see out. A further such slot was located in the center of the cylinder, facing forwards, and was situated directly between the center two of the tractor wheels.

Atop the machine was a single large periscope reminiscent of an alpine horn more than anything from a submarine and which formed the primary means of observation for the vehicle. Whilst this would provide a theoretical 360º of view for the man operating it, it would obviously also limit observation by other members of the crew to those three slots already mentioned. Within those slots too were to be machine guns, forming the primary armament, so they would already be quite occupied with combat as well as being a good distance from the man at the bottom of the telescope, presumably the commander, to tell them what was going on, making internal communications and direction more difficult. Assuming one commander using that periscope and one man per machine gun, this would be 4 men and, adding in a dedicated driver, would mean not less than 5 men would be required to operate such a machine.

Behind the rolling pin was a trailing wheel arrangement to provide support. This wheel was fastened to a tail coming from the back of the cylinder but attached to a pair of separately rotating collars, narrower than the wheels but wider than the cylinder. These collars could therefore rotate freely without blocking the weapons or observation devices, forming a hollow in the tail to clear the periscope and allow controlled rotation of the tail around the machine.


The engine for propelling this machine was to be located low down in the central part of it, which was also roughly where the periscope was as well. Drive was transmitted via a shaft to a large gear wheel, which was connected in turn to a smaller gear wheel via a drive chain around a small rim projecting from the large gear to the small one and holding them a fixed distance apart. This connection on the shaft of the large gear was also a pivot point around which the smaller gear could move via rotation of this arm. Thus, the drive shaft could still be rotating in the same direction and could still be driving the big gear and small gear in turn, but with the arm pivoted behind the big gear, it would cause drive to imparted backwards upon the wheel. By this method, no complex gearing was needed from the shaft or gearbox and steering or rotating the vehicle on the spot could be achieved by switching from forward to rear motion on an individual wheel or side of the machine.

The steering system for the machine involved a simple small gear on a pivoting arm, allowing forward motion to be turned into reversing motion by rotating the arm rather than reversing the direction of rotation of the driveshaft.
Source: US Patent US1313095

This small arrangement by which an arm could be rotated around a center-pivot point was a key feature of the design not only for steering via these gears, but also for obstacle climbing. This function was achieved with a much bigger rotating arm, namely the ‘arm’ which was the tail of the machine. More than simply a trailing wheel for stabilization, this whole arm (or in the case of a wide machine, multiple arms) could be rotated. As soon as this tail was rotated, the entirety of the vehicle would be borne on its wheels in the manner of what Lauterbur described perhaps erroneously as a “unicycle”. With the tail rotating, the fact that it was hollow allowed it to go over and around the periscope without striking it and then continue its rotation to the front of the vehicle.

Elevation of Lauterbur’s tractor showing how the trailing wheel could be moved from front to rear and vice versa. Image has been digitally altered by the author.
Source: US Patent US1313095

With the tail wheels moved forwards, the action allowed the vehicle to exert pressure down onto an obstacle to improve the climbing and crossing ability of the machine. Likewise, it would also allow the vehicle to rapidly change direction.

Combination plan and elevation view of the vehicle using four ‘tractor wheels’ showing the location of the periscope and three tails and how they are connected.
Source: US Patent US1313095


Lauterbur certainly put some of his knowledge of gearing systems to work within the design. Multiple overlapping rotating elements, pivots, arms, and wheels all worked together to produce a vehicle for war. Given the shape, the size, and the inherent weight, it is hard to consider how the vehicle could be powered by a single motor in a single wheel, but maybe he was more interested in the gearing and process of movement than the engine, which, afteral,l gets only a brief mention. One small engine in each wheel might have been possible but would only have served to make control harder and this was the biggest failing of the design – control.
The commander, assuming it was he using the periscope, would be directly in the way of the forward machine gunner and the driver at the same time. If he was to use the machine gun, then he would clearly not be able to operate it effectively and, if the driver was using the periscope, then the commander would have little or no vision.

The control issue gets worse the bigger the vehicle gets. Those side machine gunners would only get further from the driver and/or commander as the vehicle got bigger, the weight would increase and the width occupied by the vehicle would increase dramatically as well. All of these problems would only be magnified by the even more obvious lack of space inside the machine. Every single wheel had gearing, and there were multiple moving surfaces and gears along the entire width of the vehicle. Any fighting position would be right next to open gearing and moving machinery, creating a significant hazard for their safety. For the hapless crew in the middle, a veritable obstacle course was presented when needing to exit the vehicle by the side hatches in the event of an emergency, such as catching fire or becoming trapped.

Whatever value the vehicle might have had or offered in terms of improving the steering or moving ability of a cylindrical machine of war was outweighed by the volume of problems, technical, human, practical, and military ranged against it. Lauterbur’s machine was never built, but he appears to have done well for himself with his technical expertise better suited to the bread industry than the war. Had he not passed away before WW2, it is interesting to consider what else such a fertile mind might have created for the next great conflict.

Lauterbur’s Tractor. An illustration by AMX-13.
Specifications: Lauterbur’s Tractor
Crew est. 5, Commander, Driver, 3 x machine gunners
Armament machine guns
Speed unknown
Armor unknown
Engine unknown

Ohio County births 1841-2003
US Census 1900, S.D. 3, E.D. 92, Sheet 7
US Census 1930, S.D. 11, E.D. 75-4, Sheet 4A
US Patent US1313095, ‘Tractor’, filed 6th February 1919, granted 12th August 1919.

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