Tanks are an essential part of modern warfare. If artillery is the King of Battle, armored vehicles with cannons are the King of Battle In a Limo. These armored vehicles started in World War I as a response to the problems imposed by trench warfare. Basically, they were motorized carriages to bring machine guns and cannons along in close support of the infantry. At the start of WWII, they were still being used that way, except by the Germans who saw tanks as fast-moving offensive weapons being supported by the infantry following behind. By war’s end, tanks designed evolved into monstrous size, weight, and armament. Tipping the scales at a staggering 208 tons, the German Panzer Mark VIII Maus, remains the largest tank ever built by any nation. What has been a feature of most designs was the rotating turret atop of the armored body of the vehicle and the caterpillar tracks that help the heavy vehicle distribute its weight. Before we came up with this fool-proof design, engineers and designers had to experiment with different ideas and concepts, and some of them were rather interesting.

Tsar Tank

Also known as Netopyr or Lebedenko tank, this was a product of the collaboration of Nikolai Lebedenko, Nikolay Yegorovich Zhukovsky, Boris Stechkin, and Alexander Mikulin in 1914.

A Russian Tsar tank.

This was one of the eyebrow-raising tank designs. The design was inspired by the bicycle, so instead of using the caterpillar tracks that we know, this tank used two giant bicycle wheels of nearly 30 feet on the front. The rear central wheel was 5 feet, with the idea being so that it could easily traverse bumps and ditches. Aside from the upper cannon turret, two more were on the sides and some additional weapons under its belly. Its 240-horsepower engine could reach a speed of 10.5 MPH, which was not bad.

What’s interesting about this project was that Lebedenko presented the idea to the Emperor of Russia Nicholas II through a wooden model of his car with a gramophone spring for its engine. He ran the model machine on the carpet, and it overcame stacks of books, and it impressed Nicholas II that he immediately allocated 210 thousand rubles to fund the project. Upon testing the actual Tsar tank, it could indeed cross some obstacles, but its smaller steerable roller always gets stuck on soft ground, and the two larger wheels could not pull it out given the low horsepower and torque of the engine. Forget for a moment the lack of stealth in a tank as high as a three-story house. In 1915, the project was canceled.  

The Boirault Machine

Boirault machine movements.

In the same year that the Tsar tank was designed and built, the French also had their Biorault machine. Of the tank designs, the Biorault machine stands out. The setup is unique because instead of the armored concept, they decided they wanted a rhomboid-shaped skeleton tank with a single overhead track. The six 4×3 single-track metallic frames cover the vehicle’s entire width and are rotated around a triangular motorized center. The tank was an idea of French engineer Louis Boirault to flatten barbed wires and pass over gaps in the war area. This 30-ton machine was powered by an anemic 80 HP motor and could only a speed of sluggish 1 MPH. Because of this, it was also called Diplodocus militaris” after a massive and slow dinosaur.

Bob Semple Tank

Photograph of a tank designed by Robert Semple, known as ‘Semple’s tank’ or a ‘mobile pillbox,’ built by the Ministry of Works at Temuka. Photograph taken between 1940 and 1941.

This tank was designed in WWII by the New Zealand Minister of Works named well, Bob Semple. Due to fear that the Japanese would invade the country, the civilian designers all worked together without any formal plans or blueprints. The result was a slow vehicle built over a tractor base with a cobbled-together body of welded steel. It was also fairly heavy at 20 to 25 tons, top-heavy, and had to stop every time the operator changed gears. The tank had short tracks so it bounced a lot making shooting on the move wildly inaccurate. These issues unsurprisingly resulted in the Bob Semple Tank not being mass-produced and the army discarding it in favor of British designs like the Matilda and Valentine.  At least they tried?

What do you think of these designs?