After the debut of the tank on the battlefield in 1916, many inventors purported that they had already designed similar vehicles earlier and should be credited for its novelty. Australia had De Mole, and Austria had Günther Burstyn. In Germany, another man made the headlines as the inventor of the first tank, namely Friedrich Wilhelm Goebel with his Landpanzerkreuzer. His claim has some merit, although, instead of a caterpillar system, he had envisioned a system with walking beams. However, some of his contemporaries may have described him as a fraud, rather than an inventor ahead of time. At least two times, he managed to lure in investors with the promise of great profit, but instead depleted the funds with little results.
Goebel, forgotten innovator
Friedrich Wilhelm Goebel (or Göbel) may have been born in Königsberg (Kaliningrad after 1945). At some point, he lived in Saint Petersburg on 52 Kazanskaya Street, but moved, probably before 1909, to Breslau in Germany, where he lived on 5 Stern Street (current day Poland, Wroclaw, Sienkiewicza Street). He was a machine builder and engineer by trade. In September 1909, he made the news for the first time, in relation to a perpetual motion machine he had built. It was excessively large, some three meters long and two meters high, and was quite useless. In some ways, this machine was a harbinger of what had yet to come.
In early 1913, Goebel finalized the design of a new revolutionary vehicle, one that could move without wheels. Instead, it utilized a walking-beam system. On 14 March, 1913, he applied his design to the German patent office. This patent, which described a “drive device for wheel-less vehicles, using skid-shaped supports”, is also the first documentary evidence of the design. He applied for it together with the Carowerke Für Blechindustrie G.m.b.H. from Berlin-Lichtenberg. Goebels’ relation to this company is unclear.
The first model Goebel made of his design was very small and used a foot pedal system, instead of any motorized propulsion.
The vehicle would be capable of crossing trenches, overcoming steep slopes, and crossing rough terrain. A year later, on 13 March 1914, he applied for the same patent at the British and French patent offices. Around that time, he finished work on a working, but scaled down, prototype in his workshop in Pinne (today Pniewy, Poland). He equipped it with a small 5 hp-engine. In February 1914, he also had applied his design to the German Army Technical Communications Testing Committee. Reportedly, the military showed interest, especially in the supposed capability to carry weight over rough terrain.
The vehicle was referred to as a ‘hebelschienen-automobil’, which roughly translates to a ‘lifting rails-car’. It had three sets of rails, attached to a rigid square chassis. Built on this chassis was a cabin, similar to a small train wagon. Sometime around April or maybe early May, he showed the vehicle to an audience in Pinne, the same city where his workshop was located. For the event, a large ramp was built, roughly eleven meters high and inclined at roughly 50 degrees. Walking on its sets of runners, it successfully reached the top, where the German flag was hoisted in full glory.
Boosted by his success, he arranged a show in Berlin. During the Pentecost holiday, the Berliner Stadium was packed with people, including military officers, generals, technicians, and similar authorities. He was off to a good start and the vehicle walked to the elevation, which was, for the occasion, thirty meters high, nineteen meters higher than the recorded previous attempt. Unfortunately for Goebel, he would never reach the top. In front of hundreds of people, his vehicle broke down at the foot of the hill, subjecting him to embarrassment and scorn. The little interest in the vehicle evaporated into thin air.
At the time, roughly 300,000 Mark had been invested into the project by external parties and, after the Berlin incident, Goebel could not attract any more investors. Although he managed to repair the vehicle by building in a new engine, any military attention was lost. Without any commercial interest, the project was terminated and Goebel had to pay back his debt, which meant he had no personal funds available to continue the project himself.
Technical workings of the system
The idea of the walking beam system initially seems more complicated than it actually is. Basically, the vehicle was equipped with three sets of runners. While one set of runners is raised and moves forwards, the weight of the vehicle rests on the other sets. As the forward moving set gains a footing, it pulls the vehicle forwards, while the other sets repeat the motion. Essentially, it mimics the movement of a human and it can convey heavy loads with comparatively little power.
An issue that comes to mind is the way of steering and frankly, Goebel did not mention this aspect in his patents. One could suggest one of the sides could be moved in reverse while the other kept moving forward, but the drawings indicate this was impossible. Other issues that are apparent are the complete lack of suspension and the low ground clearance. It is easy to imagine how the runners would pierce into mud and immediately get stuck.
World War One
Very shortly after these events, the situation in Germany would drastically change as the nation plunged itself into the Great War. Supposedly, in September 1914, Goebel first got the idea to armor his invention, essentially creating an off-road armored vehicle. In November, he offered it to the German War Ministry and managed to get 50.000 marks from them to build an experimental example. He completed this vehicle in January 1916, but it immediately broke down which caused the German authorities to lose all faith in the project and abandoned it. One photograph shows how litteral Goebel took his idea of a land battle cruiser with steering being done with a classic ship’s wheel.
In September 1916, shocking news reports appeared in the German and Austrian press. As the Entente forces had introduced a new technical weapon onto the western battlefield, the Tank. It was, of course, impossible that Britain and France were technologically more advanced than Germany and Austria, so the main quest of the German-speaking central European press was to find similar inventions within their nations. And they succeeded. Austria found Burstyn, who had patented a design in 1911. Germany found Goebel. Within a few days, the failed lifting-rails car became a true technological advancement and a missed opportunity that could have won the war, according to the propaganda. In December 1916, a public speech was held by writer Wilhelm Hall about the greatness of Goebel’s invention and journalist Hans Möller wrote some publications about the vehicle.
This renewed interest was of great importance to Goebel. With people advocating for his design, it was again possible to attract new investors and revive the project. This was especially true after Hall proposed to start a national fundraiser to free Goebel from the hands of his usurers and allow him to build his invention for the Fatherland. The plea for help worked and Goebel managed to find new investors, so he was finally able to build a model of a proposed armored vehicle. In February 1917, Goebel presented his work to a select group of technicians and journalists, during which he answered critical questions satisfactorily. Goebel said his model would be ready during the second half of February 1917.
The Armored Land Cruiser
Thanks to two pictures of the model, we have a vague idea how the final vehicle would have looked like. At first, the vehicle seems to resemble a submarine, but on land. The symmetrical body, railing on a flat top, and a tower in the middle are distinctive features. According to Duncan Crow and Robert J. Icks in their “Encyclopedia of Tanks” from 1975, Goebel estimated that the real size vehicle would have a length of 36 meters (118′) and a height and width of 5 meters (17′). With all-around armor of 10 centimeters (10″), the vehicle would weigh around 550 tonnes. It is a bit unclear where this information comes from, but that the proposed vehicle would be big and heavy is certain.
Any further details of the design are unknown, but some educated guesses can be made. For example, the commanding and driving positions were likely in the central tower. The armament would have consisted of a large number of guns which were likely located all-round the vehicle in the extrusions visible on the scale model.
Apart from the clear technical problems, it was likely the sheer size, proportions, and weight of the vehicle that got it rejected by the German Army.
An anecdote claims that the German Crown Prince, also called Wilhelm, heard of the rejection after the presentation. Seeing some potential, he arranged a second demonstration in June 1917. Goebel decided to replace the walking runners with steel spheres which acted as some kind of ball bearings. This solution was also labeled to be impractical and the vehicle was rejected again. It is unfortunately unknown what this system would have looked like.
In 1930, Goebel was fully convinced his armored land cruiser could have changed the war. With 20 or 50 of them, he said, the war would have been decided very quickly. They would have been invulnerable and invincible since the enemy had no anti-tank equipment and would panic from the sight of the vehicles.
In a way, Goebel fell victim to patriotic propaganda. His project was already a dead-end, and the revival of the project plunged Goebel into more debt. In June 1918, he was declared bankrupt by the Berlin court. At the time, he had a debt of 800.000 Mark, roughly a million dollars in 2015 value. Personally, he blamed the German military authorities. After all, he had pursued the project with the aim to help the war effort, while the ministry kept him at bay, not stopping him from investing more money into the project. The case of his bankruptcy also made it to the Reichstag, where a member pleaded to at least compensate Goebel for his efforts.
However, clearly, patriotism was not the only force driving Goebel, as the financial prospects were attractive as well. After all, his promise that much money could be made was what lured in the investors in the first place. Since it was not clear what Goebel had spent all the money on, a criminal investigation was launched against him. Shortly after these events, Goebel moved to Switzerland.
Better luck in Switzerland?
While living in Switzerland, Goebel tried to revive his career. He rented a workshop in Dietikon, near Zürich, where he started work on a new vehicle. Promising to build a new and wondrous “Wüstenschiff” or desert ship, he managed to find new investors who were willing to pay with the promise the invention would be worth millions of dollars.
In 1924, the curtain fell for Goebel. The construction of his wondrous desert ship dragged on and on. This delay raised some eyebrows and eventually, it was found out that Goebel was under criminal investigation in Germany and that he had been described as chronically paranoid by psychiatrists. In response, he was taken into custody by the local authorities and a search of his house revealed the addresses of all his financiers who could then be informed. They had been scammed by the promise of millions of dollars of profit once the invention was up and running. All the money was gone, and all that was left was the frame of the truck. What happened to Goebel afterward is unknown but he eventually returned to Berlin, where he died in poverty on 31 October 1931.
Further developments by Viag
The idea of a walking vehicle was further pursued by the company Viag (Venzlaff-Industrie A.G.), led by Richard Venzlaff, Walther von Mumm, and Arthur von Mumm. They designed a first prototype in 1922, which was completed and patented in 1923, while a second prototype was finished in 1925. In April 1923, the truck appeared as a ‘new invention’ in the Popular Science magazine. It was described as an invention of a German engineer and based on the ‘tank concept’. It is unknown to what extent Goebel was involved with the design process, or if he was involved with it at all.
Although of novel construction, the Landkreuzer failed to gain enough attention and the accident during Pentecost meant the project was exterminated. Goebel fixed the problem and supposedly got the idea in September 1914 to armor it, but nothing came to it. In September 1916, it quickly became a German propaganda tool after the British and French tanks were unleashed on the battlefields of the Western Front. Years later, Goebel himself claimed that his invention could have won the war. However, his design had fundamental problems, and given that the earliest reference of armoring the vehicle only goes back to September 1914, there is no real evidence that an armored vehicle could have been built before the war.
In fact, it appears that Goebel suffered from delusions and that he was more capable to make debt, rather than an actual armored land cruiser. Despite this, when he died, newspapers reported it as the death of the inventor of the first tank.
The internet is a great place for myths to circulate on. Although many wrong things have been written about Goebel, which were hopefully all rectified in this article, one myth needs to be discussed separately. For years, pictures of a rather advanced tracked tractor circulated on the internet with the claim it was designed by Goebel during the First World War, but that is totally untrue. In fact, it is a non-suspended tractor made by the Leipzig-based firm Wotan-Werke in 1926 and is known as the Type A. It was built to test the differences between a suspended, and non-suspended tracked chassis.
Friedrich Wilhelm Goebel, 1913, Antriebsvorrichtung für Räderlose, mit Hilfe kufenförmiger Stützen sich fortbewegende Fahrzeug, DE Patent 300981, issued 14 March 1913
Friedrich Wilhelm Goebel, 1914, Improvements in and relating to vehicles, UK Patent 6432, applied 13 March 1914, issued 28 May 1914.
Friedrich Wilhelm Goebel, 1914, Véhicule sans roues, FR Patent 469610, applied 13 March 1914, issued 25 May 1914.
Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung, No. 19, 10 May 1914, p.21-22.
Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung, No. 44, 29 October 1916, p.11-13.
Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung, No. 51, 17 December 1916, p.31.
Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung, No. 49, 9 December 1917, p.32.
Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung, No. 23, 9 June 1918, p.37-38.
Neues Wiener Journal, 22 September 1909, p.9.
“Landpanzerkreuzer”, Neue Freie Presse, 3 January 1917, p.15.
Een Land-Pantserkruiser, De Tijd, 15 February 1917, p.2.
Wheel-less Truck Walks on Metal “Feet”, Popular Science April 1923, p.48. Accessed on babel.hathitrust.org.
Der “Landpanzerkreuzer”, Reichspost, 20 March 1924, p.5.
Der deutsche erfinder des tanks gestorben, Freie Stimmen, 5 November 1931, p.4.
Wiener panzerungeheuer, Kleine Volks-Zeitung, 12 November 1931, p.6.
De Tank. Uitvinder miskend en in armoede gestorven, Het nieuws van den dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië, 15 December 1931, p.19.
Der May-Freund Hans Möller karl-may-gesellschaft.de.
Was wir vom Weltkrieg nicht wissen, Walter Jost & Friedrich Felger, 1938, H. Fikentscher Verlag, p.317.
Viag 1917-1926, pdf posted by Hedi on the Landships Forum.
German Panzers 1914-1918, Steven Zaloga, Osprey Publishing, p.5-6.
Die Rad- und Vollkettenzugmaschinen des deutschen Heeres 1870-1945, Walter J. Spielberger, Motorbuch Verlag, p.139, 143.
historicalstatistics.org/Currencyconverter.html used to convert currency.
NB Austrian newspapers and magazines accessed at anno.onb.ac.at
Dutch newspapers accessed at delpher.nl.