A century ago the Great War was still raging, still deadlocked. Two inventions would play a huge role in the resolution of the conflict, and both were originally designed by Irishmen. John Philip Holland, a Fenian sympathiser from Clare, had invented the submarine in the late nineteenth century as a way of attacking British shipping. Walter Gordon Wilson, on the other hand, developed the tank with a view to assisting the cause of his adoptive country against Germany in World War One.
Wilson was born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin in 1874. The son of a barrister, he trained as a British naval cadet, before completing his education at King’s College, Cambridge, where he got a first in mechanical science.
His story includes one of the great ‘what ifs’ of aviation history. In 1897 he formed a partnership with Percy Pilcher, a gliding enthusiast. Their aim was simple, to be the first to achieve controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight, by developing an aero-engine. They nearly made it, and might have done so had Pilcher not been killed in a glider accident in 1899. Shocked at the death of his charismatic partner, Wilson abandoned the project, although he had already designed a prototype engine. Four years later Orville and Wilbur Wright made aeronautical history with their flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Wilson next moved into the burgeoning automobile industry, adapting his aeronautic engine for the new ‘horseless carriage’. Although Percy Pilcher was dead, Wilson paid homage to his partner in naming the Wilson-Pilcher motor car in 1900. He continued to develop the design—which included a revolutionary gearbox—until the outbreak of World War One.
Wilson re-joined the Navy in 1914. He was sent to Belgium and France to protect British aircraft using armoured vehicles. He was also expected to build them. He was then taken on by the highly secretive Landships Committee, to develop what would become the tank. The Committee wanted nothing more or less than an armoured vehicle capable of withstanding German machine guns and small arms, sailing through barbed wire, and over trenches. So no pressure there.
But Wilson, and his new partner, fellow engineer, William Tritton, were up to the task. Their first effort was nicknamed—no sniggering at the back, please—‘Little Willie’. It was called after Wilson or the Kaiser—depending on who you believe—and was chronically unstable. So probably the Kaiser then. A high mid-section meant it had a tendency to keel over when sent into experimental action. Wilson went back to the drawing board and developed an armoured vehicle with a lower centre of gravity, and tracks running around the whole body. It’s official name was ‘The Wilson’. Then it was renamed ‘The Centipede’. But it was better known by its nickname, ‘Big Willie’. I kid you not. It went into production in February 1916, and the first models were ready for action during the second phase of the Somme offensive.
Well, sort of anyway. They just weren’t very good in 1916. They were unbelievably hot, and noisy, and tended to break down long before they got near the enemy trenches. Wilson and Tritton kept at it, and continued to improve the design, until the tank, by 1918, was a vital and integral part of the Allied victory over Germany. Its most successful appearance was probably at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. One of Wilson’s great contributions was something called epicyclic steering, which allowed the tank to turn, a rather useful characteristic in a war.
Wilson transferred from the Navy to the Army in 1916, was promoted to Major, mentioned in dispatches twice, and, in 1917, was appointed Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, or a CMG to you and me.
After the war he continued his career as an innovative engineer, developing and exploiting the Wilson self-changing gearbox, and setting up his own company in Coventry to manufacture it.
Walter Gordon Wilson, the man who designed one of the most lethal and decisive weapons of the Great War, the tank, was born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, one hundred and forty-three years ago, on this day.
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