It is commonly accepted that the tank was invented by the British in WW1 as a means to break the stalemate of trench warfare. What is not well known is the number of armored vehicles designed and used which predate the appearance of a modern tank.
There were many ideas from ancient times to the medieval period for covered wagons or protected carts, but none of these machines had the fundamental element of a modern fighting vehicle: an engine. One of the first vehicles combining both protection for the crew, offensive weaponry, and an engine was designed not in the early years of the 20th century, but in 1855.
The designers, Messrs. James Cowen (of Greycoat Street, Westminster, London) and James Sweetlong (Earl-Street, Westminster, London) submitted their design requesting a Patent on the 3rd April 1855 under reference number ‘747’.
There are various descriptions of this machine available in both contemporary and more modern sources, all of which hint at what the machine really looked like.
“This invention consists in forming a large land battery, running on wheels and driven by steam. To the framing of the battery and at right angles to its length, are fitted strong and powerful blades turning upon a hinge joint, so as to lie close to the framing when not in use, and to be instantly thrown out when required by the artillery-men or persons inside the battery, ‘the effect being to mow down any troops that come in contact with or near the battery”
– Mechanics Magazine 1855
“Consists in an armour clad locomotive land battery propelled by steam power. The engine and boilers are placed below the floor of the gun-room, the engine room being in the middle. The vehicle runs on five wheels, the fifth being situated centrally at the front to act as a guiding wheel”
– Abridgments of specifications (Patents), 1855-1865
“A massive framing is proposed to be fixed on five broad wheels. Upon this framing ordnance is mounted, and loop-holes may be made in the sides thereof for riflemen. The carriage is to be driven by a steam-engine”
– Abridgments of specifications (Patents), 1859
“In 1855 James Cowen took out a patent (No. 747) for a ‘Locomotive Battery for Field of Battle with steam engine.’ It held 14-pdr. Carronades and the framing had strong, powerful blades (scythes), hinged when not in use, to mow down any troops that came in contact with it. The cover was of hardened steel, serrated or formed in sharp angular projections, to shatter any shot that may strike them. This is a direct opposite to the ‘glancing surface’ which was one of the noticeable features of the best defensive armour and is still observed in the helmets of 1915 pattern and the battleship turrets of the Navy. The shape of Cowen’s covering, very similar to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s, was good, and would probably have been more protective if it had been left smooth. Cowen took out several patents for agricultural machines, but does not seem to have taken out any protection for his experimental war-cart”
– JSAHR, Volume 16, Summer 1940
“In 1855 James Cowan [sic: Cowen], a wealthy philanthropist, took out a patent for a steam-driven ‘locomotive land battery fitted with scythes to mow down infantry.’ It was a four-wheeled armoured vehicle armed with guns, and ‘looked like a huge dish cover on wheels.’ It was rejected by Lord Palmerston as being too brutal for civilized warfare”
– The Conduct of War 1789-1961 quoting ‘The Tanks’ by B.H. Liddle Hart 1959
‘This invention consists of an improved locomotive battery to be used in the field of battle, and is so constructed as to exert a most destructive force against the enemy, while protected from damage in return”
– Tale of the Next Great War – IF Clarke, 1995
Just like the descriptions provided by some authors, there have also been various interpretations and artist’s impressions of the machine, and they are reproduced here to examine how so many different interpretations exist and how they came about.
‘Cowen’s Battle Car, 1855’ looking like an upturned dish cover. Just four wheels shown. Photo: JSAHR, Vol. 16, Summer 1940
Mostly correct except the guns which are on the wrong deck and the shape of the skirt is wrong. Source: Unknown
This vision of the machine is clearly drawn only from a description as the spiked surface and fifth wheels are well described but the overall shape is completely wrong. Photo: Voices Prophesying War, 1966
Almost certainly just copied straight from ‘Voices Prophesying War this is a very well drawn vision of the machine but completely wrong. Photo: www.tankinfo.ru, 2012
The real machine, both in looks and description, is somewhat different, however. Apart from the version with the spiky roof, most of the drawings get the rough impression of the machine correctly and some of the descriptions get some or all of the features, but none of them are conclusive or complete. Thankfully, not only has Cowen’s original submission from 1855 been located, but also the poster and letters Cowen sent to Lord Palmerston (British Prime Minister 1855-1858).
The Real Machine – 1855
In the original patent of April 1855, there is no picture or outline which might account for some of the variance in the images for the vehicle over the years. The vehicle is well described though, consisting of a massive and sturdy framework onto which five broad wheels are mounted, with one positioned centrally at the front of the vehicle to act as a guide wheel. A further note on the wheels is that to “assist the progress of the battery over yielding ground” projections or cogs could be fitted.
The outside of the machine is covered with “stout plates of hardened steel” which have their outer surfaces serrated or shaped to form sharp angular projections from the body which would serve to shatter projectiles hitting the armor. No thickness of armor is specified, but the overall shape of the vehicle’s body is elliptical.
Propulsion for the machine is by means of a steam engine located in a recess in the flooring of the chamber. The boilers for the engine are placed below the flooring of the gun room and along each side of the recess forming the engine room in such a way as to permit easy access.
Armament for the machine was provided by “14lb. carronades , or other suitable sized guns” as well as one or more steam-powered guns using steam from the boilers to propel shot. Further offensive capability is provided by means of multiple port-hole type apertures around the circumference of the gun deck along with small holes for observation. Finally, and most infamously, fitted to the framing and at right angles to it are “strong and powerful blades, turning upon a hinge joint so as to lie close to the framing when not in use” which could be thrown out by riflemen when needed to mow down troops too near to the battery – though there is no mention of them being spring loaded.
The 1862 Machine
In 1862, Cowen submitted more information and the only reliable image of the machine in correspondence to Lord Palmerston. For these letters, he had added some additional information to his 1855 outline providing us with more insight into what he had envisaged 7 years earlier.
The design, according to Cowen, was a “shot and bomb-proof steam engine” able to travel at over 20mp/h [32km/h] and which could be adapted or modified to carry weapons of any calibre or quantity that may be desired. The machine had two levels: an upper platform of the vehicle constructed so as to form a continuous platform of rifled barrels able to fire a ‘sixty ounce bullet’ per minute with the adventurous claim of a range of two miles. Sixty ounces is 3.75 pounds (1.7 kg) which suggests something like a 4-pounder gun with a diameter in the region of 3 to 3.2 inches (76.2-81.3 mm). The Battle Car’s image, as drawn, would show 12 of these guns arranged around the circumference of the machine. Alternatively, this could just be substituted in whole or in part for loopholes for riflemen to fire from.
Cowen’s own rendering of the invention from his submission to Lord Palmerston 1862. Note that the vehicle is seen traveling left to right. Photo: Cumbria Archive Services
The blades on the sides were now knives or swords and described more thoroughly as:
“projecting from the axles of the wheels of the Battery are revolving scythe-shaped knives or swords – which, without the aid of steam armament but combined with the irresistible power of the Ram formed to work in both ways – would effectually annihilate Cavalry, Infantry, and crush batteries of Artillery”
– James Cowen, 1862
Cowen envisaged the machine not just for land use but also for naval use, stating that it could be used as a naval ram as well by simply wheeling it onto a “shot-proof pontoon adapted for it”. From the image he provided in 1862 and the contemporary descriptions, we see a large machine supported on four large spoked wheels with a fifth smaller wheel at the front to assist with steering. The body of the machine is armor plated mounted to a very substantial framework internally combining to protect the occupants therein from enemy fire.
In the 7 years since his initial application, the design had changed slightly. Gone was the mention of serrations or spikes, alternatively they are simply too small to show in his image. Gone were also the 14-pounder carronades, replaced with smaller guns (approximately 4-pounders, see above). The basic shape and arrangement of engine, wheels, and fighting chamber remained the same, however.
Cowen reflected on his design in 1862 reminding Lord Palmerston of his personal meeting at Palmerston’s house in Piccadilly. The vehicle “which was named by the late eminent Philanthropist Robert Owen, ‘The Peace Maker’”. His design had been referred on by Palmerston to the War Office and Board of Ordnance at Woolwich, putting pay to subsequent mythology about Lord Palmerston rejecting the design as inhumane or ungentlemanly.
Cowen reminded Lord Palmerston that he had been given permission, in talking to the War Office and Board, to use Palmerston’s name as a reference. He further reminded Lord Palmerston that the Prime Minister had himself remarked “as the machine was to Supersede Soldiers, Armies fought everywhere” as some measure of the validity of his proposal. Palmerston was clearly then not rejecting the idea and, whilst maybe not fully endorsing it, certainly thought it worthy to have referred to an expert body for consideration. The permission to use his name as a reference for the invention could only have served to assist Cowen in his endeavors.
Cowen himself states that it was not Lord Palmerston who rejected the design, but the “washed-out Old Women and Senile Old Tabbies at Woolwich” and specifically Lord Hardinge (Commander in Chief of the British Army 1852-1856) who “had plenty of experience with guns and the firing of them, but … did not understand engineering”.
He had wanted GB£2000 (about GB£226,000 in 2018 values) for the designs and plans to cover what he claimed he had spent on the patent fees and the engine model which would explain the presence of Mr. Sweetlong as the engineer and model maker. Having been rejected in 1855, Cowen claimed that his model maker simply left the country with the information and model and submitted them “without my knowledge or sanction” to the French, and then to both the Confederate and to the Federal States of America.
He was therefore trying to gain interest in his vehicle once again, not from the angle of the design on its own merits, but because, as he was claiming, the machine was now known to potential strategic adversaries, such as Louis Napoleon of France, the United States (both North and South), and even Russia, implying that Great Britain should have to keep up. This 1862 poster campaign (he claimed to have had 20,000 printed) and letter writing was to no avail.
He had already significant financial problems claiming to have been wealthy and listing his occupation as a Medical and Political Reformer (in 1862), but had already been in debtors gaol on and off since at least July 1855. At one appearance at court in September 1855, he was named as the inventor of a “locomotive Land Battery or Devastator”. He claimed his prison worries were as the result of complaints from the Church for him distributing GB£30 (about GB£3150 in 2018 values) worth of food and cash to the poor “in mockery of the Deity of the Fast Day” with court costing him another GB£1000 (about GB£105,000 in 2018 values) on top on his claimed GB£2000 (about GB£226,000 in 2018 values) expenditure on his patent and model.
By his own admission, Cowen never made a farthing (a quarter of a penny) from the invention. James Cowen, occupation given as ‘Dispenser of Drugs’, was declared insolvent (Case no. 65,433) by the Court at Lincoln’s Inn, London on the 17th November 1855. His financial troubles were finalised in October 1859 when “James Cowen, known as James Cohen, and as Dr. J. Cower, formerly a Prisoner in the Debtors’ Prison, White Cross-street, London, of No.3, Grey Coat-street, Westminster, and No.8, Broughton-place, Hackney-road, then of No.3, Grey Coat-street, aforesaid, then a Prisoner in the House of Correction, Cold Bath Fields, Clerkenwell, all in Middlesex, and of No.3, Grey Coat-street aforesaid, and now of the latter place describing himself as a Medical and Surgical Reformer, and Dispenser and Dealer in Drugs and Chemicals, late an out Pensioner of Chelsea Hospital” when by indenture he assigned all of his remaining goods, stock in trade, furniture, effects, estate, and remaining debts to Matthew Dodds (Forgeman), Joseph Cowen (a Grocer, and presumably a relative), and John Cowen (also presumably a relative), all from his hometown of Crook, County Durham.
For reference, an ‘Out Pensioner’ in his description refers to a person collecting their Army pension who lives outside of the Royal Hospital Chelsea (as opposed to an In-Pensioner) and this ties in with his 1862 claim that the government had taken away his pension of 26 years service. His original working partner James Sweetlong is more mysterious and, other than Cowen’s claim that he left for France and the Americas, there is no information as to what became of him.
Cowen’s end was not a happy one. If he is to be believed, he squandered what money he had on his design which was rejected and fell into debt and legal problems. A rather ignoble end for a man who, with James Sweetlong, came up with the idea of armored land machine with engines more than a decade before the birth of more famous people like H.G. Wells.
In his 1862 poster Cowen described and lamented upon his design:
“Jas. Cowen’s Patented Land & Sea Locomotive Steam Ram & Battery. Submitted to Lord Palmerston, the Premier of Great Britain and his colleagues, some of whom, as well as himself highly approved of it in 1854, and by them referred to a select Committee of the most experienced veterans of the age – supposed to be (?) but in reality washed-out Old Women and Senile Old Tabbies at Woolwich, whither I caused the Machine, Models, Plans, & c., to be conveyed.”
– James Cowen, 1862
|Maximum Speed||20 mph|
|Armament||12 guns firing 16-ounce shot|
The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of the Archive Services of Cumbria, The Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research, and Intellectual Property Office (UK) for their assistance in finding the missing paperwork from Cowen and Sweetlong without whom this article would not have been possible.
Links & Resources
Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984, Ignatius Clark
The Tale of the Next Great War 1871-1914, Ignatius Clark
Rhombus: almanac on the history of armored vehicles, PMB magazine No.1, 2012
Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research Vol.16, 1940
Tanks: 100 years of evolution, Richard Ogorkiewicz
The Conduct of War 1789 – 1961, J.F.C. Fuller
Abridgements of Specifications: Patents for Inventions 1855-1865
Abridgements of the Specifications relating to Fire-arms and other weapons, ammunitions, and accoutrements. 1859
The Illustrated London News 21st October 1916
The London Gazette, 4th May 1855
The London Gazette, 17th June 1859
The London Gazette, 24th August 1885
Patent Application GB747 filed 3rd April 1855
Mechanics Magazine, Vol. 63, 1855, R. Brooman
Mechanics Magazine, Vol.63 (New Series), 1867, John Knight
A rendition of the ‘Land Battery’ or ‘Devastator’ based on Cowen’s own drawing from 1862. Illustrated by Jaycee ‘AmazingAce’ Davis, funded by Fred Oliver through our Patreon campaign.