Churchill Convenes Tank Committee

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 170th installment in the series.

February 24, 1915: Churchill Convenes Tank Committee

The backbone of modern conventional armies, tanks may seem like an obvious idea—and indeed the model of a self-contained, mobile fortress to dominate the battlefield has been around for thousands of years. The Roman “testudo” or tortoise formation allowed legionaries to advance through hails of arrows, and during the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for an armored vehicle (below), “safe and unassailable, which will enter the closed ranks of the enemy with their artillery… And behind these our infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.”

In 1903 the British futurist H.G. Wells imagined armored vehicles breaking through entrenched defenders in his short story “The Land Ironclads,” inspired by the heavy casualties inflicted by massed rifle fire in the Boer War. Propelled by mechanical “feet” on wheels and followed by columns of regular infantry, Wells’ land ironclad “continued to move regardless of the hail that splashed its skin with bright new specks of lead,” eventually “hoisting itself farther and farther over the trench,” while “methodically shooting down and breaking up any persistent knots of resistance.”

However armored battlefield vehicles would remain in the realm of science fiction until the invention of the internal combustion engine in the second half of the 19th century. A huge improvement over steam engines, in internal combustion engines exploding gasoline or diesel vapor replaced steam in pistons, allowing designers to do away with cumbersome boilers as well as the huge quantities of coal needed to power them. The new, more compact engines enabled a flurry of engineering feats including the first automobile, invented by Karl Benz 1885, the first practical submarine, designed by John Holland in 1898, and the first airplane, invented by the Wright brothers and first flown in 1903.

While submarines held intriguing strategic potential and airplanes captured the popular imagination, automobiles had far and away the largest economic impact in the near term, with Henry Ford’s creation of the Model T in 1908 promising to transform middle class lifestyles and fueling another wave of industrialization in the U.S. Before long it would also change the face of war.

Following the outbreak of the Great War and the emergence of trench warfare in 1914, attention quickly turned to development of armored vehicles using internal combustion engines to break through enemy defenses. As early as December 1914 French military engineers were working on the Frot-Laffly landship, named after its designers, which combined armor plates with cannons and machine guns, but used wheels instead of tractor treads, resulting in limited mobility across open terrain. Around the same time Thomas Hetherington, a commander in the Royal Naval Air Service, saw a heavy vehicle using “Diplock pedrails,” a type of tread, and recommended it to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The idea was also advocated by Colonel Ernest Swinton, an influential military officer and writer who apparently suggested the codename “tank” to conceal the true purpose of the device (the term is sometimes also credited to Churchill).

Brushing aside the fact that the armored vehicles clearly fell under the category of land warfare, on February 24, 1915 Churchill convened the first “Landships Committee” (cleverly using a bit of naval imagery to bridge the gap). The committee began by considering two main prototypes for armored vehicles—the first, a bizarre “Bigwheel” model without treads, the second a large truck-like vehicle designed by Colonel Rookes Crompton, incorporating the Diplock Pedrail caterpillar tread then in use in agricultural tractors, intended to carry up to 50 infantry soldiers into battle.

On March 28 Churchill ordered twelve of the Pedrail models and six of the Bigwheels, but both soon proved impractical because of mobility issues. In April Crompton revised the Pedrail design to produce an articulated vehicle to address its mobility shortcomings, which the committee approved in May, but the articulated version turned out to have even more issues.

With Churchill’s encouragement the committee pressed on, and Crompton now turned to a new kind of caterpillar tread used on tractors made by a U.S. manufacturer based in Chicago, the Bullock Tractor Company. In August 1915 he obtained a specially manufactured extra-long version of the “Bullock Creeping Grip,” as the tread was known. However by this time the committee had lost patience with Crompton’s fixation on the articulated vehicle design, which they regarded as a clear failure. Crompton was removed from the project, but his idea of using the Bullock Creeping Grip proved to be a crucial contribution.

Meanwhile beginning in July 1915 William Tritton, managing director at the Foster’s Works factory in Lincoln, collaborated with Lieutenant Walter Wilson of the Royal Navy Reserve, who had worked as an automobile engineer before the war, on a new design: much smaller than either of the first two prototypes, the “Lincoln No. 1 Machine” (below) combined the Bullock Creeping Grip with a squat, compact (and non-articulated) body.

Although the tracks failed at the first test in September 1915, the “Lincoln No. 1 Machine,” nicknamed “Little Willie,” had confirmed the soundness of the basic concept; by now the idea had also received the endorsement of British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French (Churchill was forced to step down following the disaster at Gallipoli in April-May 1915; in June his successor, Arthur Balfour, confirmed that work on the project would continue).

Tritton and Wilson returned to the drawing board to design a new vehicle with an unusual “rhomboidal” shape to make it easier to climb in and out of trenches. Known by a number of nicknames, including “The Wilson,” “The Centipede,” “Big Willie,” and eventually “Mother,” the new vehicle (top) was designed to meet War Office specifications that it be able to cross an eight-foot-wide trench and climb parapets up to four feet six inches tall. It would be ready for testing by November 30.

See the previous installment or all entries.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Late MythBusters Star Grant Imahara Honored With New STEAM Foundation

Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Genevieve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans of MythBusters and White Rabbit Project host Grant Imahara were saddened to hear of his passing due to a brain aneurysm in July 2020 at the age of 49. Imahara, a graduate of the University of Southern California, used the television medium to share his love of science and engineering. Now, his passion for education will continue via an educational foundation developed in his name.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation was announced Thursday, October 23, 2020 by family and friends on what would have been Imahara’s 50th birthday. The Foundation will provide mentorships, grants, and scholarships that will allow students from diverse backgrounds access to STEAM education, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. (Formerly referred to as STEM, the “A” for art was added more recently.)

Imahara had a history of aiding students. While working at Industrial Light and Magic in the early 2000s, he mentored the robotics team at Richmond High School to prepare for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Whether he was working on television or behind-the-scenes on movies like the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix sequels, Imahara always found time to promote and encourage young engineering talent.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation’s founding board members include Imahara’s mother, Carolyn Imahara, and close friends Don Bies, Anna Bies, Edward Chin, Fon H. Davis, Coya Elliott, and Ioanna Stergiades.

“There are many students, like my son Grant, who need the balance of the technical and the creative, and this is what STEAM is all about,” Carolyn Imahara said in a statement. “I’m so proud of my son’s career, but I’m equally proud of the work he did mentoring students. He would be thrilled that we plan to continue this, plus much more, through The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation.”

Imahara friend Wade Bick is also launching an effort in concert with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to name a study lounge after Imahara. Donations can be made here.

You can find out more about the foundation, and make a donation, on its website.