The need for armor to breach enemy defenses and to move guns across heavily broken, shell damaged ground had become apparent to many in WW1 and there were many suggestions to overcome these problems. Italy had entered the war in 1915 and was soon faced with many of the same problems Britain and France were having to deal with in making a machine to cross the battlefield. One Italian engineer came up with a very unusual solution to those problems. His name was Luigi Gussalli.
Born in Bologna on the 18th December 1885, Luigi Gussalli was a man with an aptitude for mechanical engineering; building miniature vehicles in his spare time, such as toy airplanes and steam-powered cars. He was also a dreamer and experimented with rockets whilst at the same time devouring science fiction novels. After school, he studied physics in Pavia. As a young man, in 1911, he showed himself to be a pioneer in vehicles, having patented an unusual animal powered wheeled vehicle. That vehicle design did not find any use, but the outbreak of WW1 for Italy in 1915 led him to join the Regio Esercito (Royal Army), originally as a driver, but soon became an engineer for the Testing Commission.
Captain Luigi Gussalli. Source: Bresciacity.it
By 1916, Gussalli, a Captain of Artillery in the Regio Esercito (Royal Army) was not convinced about the use of tracked vehicles. At the time, these had a lot of problems with the resilience of the track. Instead, he turned his attention to the development of an assault vehicle using ski-like-skids (runners) instead of wheels or tracks.
With limited means at his disposal, a model of the vehicle was made in Novara, Italy. The design was not put into production, but did garner the interest of the Fonderie dell’Erra and Officine Airoldi di Novara which patented a larger 2 seater walking machine. Working with Gussali in 1917, this machine followed the same principles, and although Gussalli’s original machine does not survive, the design of the larger vehicle does.
Gussalli machine from 1917 patent showing the large central tower and oval drive wheels
The larger machine
This new, larger machine consisted of a large central tower structure with a circular turret. Motion was provided by two pairs of large skids moved by means of geared oval shaped wheels on each side driven by the motor. As the wheels turned, their oval shape causes the leg to raise and then lower again producing the walking motion. Experiments were done with this design concept and it showed great promise, with a prototype beginning construction in 1917. It could cross trenches and ditches with ease as well as climb small walls. Everything expected of a tracked tank. The problem was speed. It was just far too slow, even when compared to the slow machines of the era.
Although many officers and engineers came to see the vehicle and were impressed, the military were not interested in the machine, and development of the prototype languished into 1918 and the project ended. No trace is known to remain of the prototype or Gussalli’s original design, but General Montu provides the last word on the design itself in ‘Storia dell’ Artiglieria’ describing it as ‘undoubtedly original’.
No engine or armament is specified for the Gussalli design, but a small petrol engine would be expected along with likely a machine-gun as the main armament. Protection would be light and, in keeping with armored cars of the era, an estimate of 8mm to be bulletproof is likely.
After WW1, Gussalli, then living at Via Montesuello, Brescia, dedicated himself to his science fiction writings and studies of astronautics as well as patents, and in 1929, submitted another patent for a much smaller and simpler walking machine titled ‘Improvement in Vehicles for Undulating Ground’.
Gussalli patent for vehicle for crossing undulating ground, 1929
The body of this single-seater vehicle consisted of a boat-shaped superstructure, akin to a sledge, in which the driver sat behind a large pedal-driven wheel. The body is attached via cranked arms to two pairs of runners which act as feet providing a walking motion for the vehicle.
Movement for this Gussalli design is effectively the same as his other walking machines, intended specifically for crossing “natural ground, such as ploughed, sandy, stony, marshy or submerged land, obstructed by fallen tree trunks, furrowed by trenches, drains, cracks and the like and also over the snow and ice of ice belts”. The ‘walking’ motion was effected through two or more long runners formed from bent steel tubing driven mechanically and supported by wheels to the body of the machine.
The mechanism was designed to be simple to improve the efficiency of the machine. Steering was simply done by braking the movement of one runner allowing the other to continue moving and the vehicle could turn within its own length.
A second small motor was to be fitted to provide additional power when traversing particularly rough ground as it would accelerate the runners which were moving during their ‘walking’ cycle.
Luigi Gussalli might not have found success in his ‘tank’ design of 1917 or some of his other ideas and he is mainly remembered not in military matters, but as a visionary of space flight. He published ‘Jet Propulsion for Astronautics’ in 1941 followed by several other books on the subject of space travel, including the use of multi-stage rockets or the creation of ‘gravity’ through rotation. Gussalli died in the Italian town of Salò in 1950. His correspondence with Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth (leading proponents of rocket technology for space flight) ensure he is remembered as a visionary in astronautics and even had an asteroid named after him in 1995, ‘32944 Gussalli’.
Links, Resources & Further Reading
Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano, Nicola Pignato & Filippo Cappellano
UK Patent GB 346022 filed 21st December 1929
Reichspatentamt Patentschrift 549021 Patented 29th June 1930
French Patent 437247 filed 6th December 1911
Minor Planet Center.net