In order to bring this fighting machine to life, four technical inventions were necessary, as well as one condition to bring them together. Here they are.
To this day, it is not known who invented linked tracks. Some assign this honour to the French inventor d'Herman, who presented a "new type of cart" to the public in 1713, which traveled on a chain of logs. Others point to a British inventor named Edgeworth, who connected two cart wheels with a linked chain some 50 years later. However, he never patented his invention. Whoever this mysterious pioneer of the linked track was, his invention took hold and the new type of movement remained in use.
From the beginning of the 19th century, dozens of engineers independently created their own types of tracks and improved their design. Long before tanks, tracks conquered the world, reaching the Antarctic with Robert Scott.
There were many tracked vehicles on the battlefield of WWI aside from tanks. Aside from vehicles built in metal, there were paper projects, some on the brink of insanity. For example the Russian army planned to equip the Ilya Muromets heavy bomber with a tracked landing gear. The theory was that this way, it could take off from any surface.
Tracks opened up the potential of regular wheels which was hidden for thousands of years, giving them unseen off-road performance. However, they would never have taken off without an engine.
The engine also did not suddenly appear, but evolved over the centuries, in several directions. The first steam turbines were known during the ancient times and in the Middle Ages. In the 18th century, Scotsman John Watt patented the steam engine. Its power output was very humble, only 10 hp, but it was enough to change the world.
Engineers tried to equip rail-less vehicles as well as railroad locomotives with steam engines. In the later half of the 19th century, steam tractors appeared in armed forces all over the world. However, their faults were obvious: the amount of required fuel and a massive boiler made the vehicles very large. Soon, another novelty appeared: the internal combustion engine. Many talented inventors developed it to perfection over the course of more than a century.
In parallel, chemists worked on ideal fuel for this new engine. Alcohol or turpentine could have been the solution, but breakthrough in petrochemicals forced them out. Russian scientist D.I. Mendeleev complained about gasoline: "You might as well heat your house by burning money!", it won out. In 1885, German engineers G. Daimler and W. Maybach created the carburetor gasoline engine. Sevel years later, R. Diesel immortalized his name with an engine of his own. The age of steam was coming to an end, and the heart of the tank was born. However, it had to be protected from enemy shells and bullets.
Advances in machinery spurred breakthroughs in metallurgy. Armoured steel appeared, first finding its home in fortifications and in the navy. In 1856, Russian mechanic V.S. Pyatov created the first mechanism for rolling armour. A year later, Belgian military engineer A. Brilyamon offered to equip the Antwerpen fortress with armoured artillery turrets. These turrets later appeared in fortifications of many countries.
Local wars of the 19th century demonstrated that defenses must be constantly improved, otherwise a well armed enemy can quickly penetrated it. Bunkers made from concrete and armour became commonplace. In 1885-1887, engineers H. Gruson and M. Schumann created the first mobile artillery turret: the 5,3 cm L/24 Fahrpanzer. Initially, the military protested: "Anything that moves can't be fortifications!" The Fahrpanzer might appear to be the precursor of a tank, but it was not, since it wasn't self propelled.
The three aforementioned elements could not have come together into a tank if not for the success of armament engineers.
High quality steel that was produced in enormous amounts in the 19th century opened a new frontier for armament engineers. Rifled barrels, recoil brakes, breech loading, every innovation improved cannons further. In 1893, shots from the Maxim Gun echoed through the Old World. Military conservatives treated this novelty coolly, as they did not approve of wasting ammunition and the fact that the machinegun was vulnerable to artillery. However, 600 rounds per minute became a weighty argument in favour of the new weapons. All leading powers began to purchase or produce machineguns.
A little later, when armoured cars bristled with machineguns and even cannons, little interest was paid to them. If anyone offered the idea of a tank during the turn of the century, they would be laughed out of the room.
In order for these four technical achievements to combine into a tank, designers had to have an inspiration. Sadly, it came to pass.
The Fifth Element
Trench warfare gave birth to the tank. The opponents hardened their defenses to the point where one or two machineguns could stop the attack of a whole regiment. "Battalion after battalion attacked only to show that a frontal attack on wire and machineguns only leads to losses ... and a handful of medals for the survivors" wrote a contemporary. In 1916, ten Vickers machineguns fired about one million rounds over the course of one battle.
And what happened on the narrow line between enemy trenches? Bulging, ruined terrain, multi-meter craters, both flooded and dry, overlapping each other. This "moon landscape" was tough even for an infantryman to cross. Add an endless amount of wire, trenches, mines... a tank had to appear under these conditions.
As it often happens, the debut of new weapons was described not by military theorists, but by science fiction writers. The clearest prediction was made by Herbert Welles in 1903.
Original article available here.