5 Inventions of WW1 and The Engineers Behind Them

The most important engineers, inventions of World War I, and their legacy today.
Irmak Vakıflı

World War I saw the boom in the Aerospace industry, numerous technological advancements and invention of weapons are idely known today.

The First Tank: The Caterpillar built by Lombard and Roberts 

Alvin Orlando Lombard was born in the United States of America in 1856.

Lombard, who was working with his brother Samuel to support his family, constantly demonstrated his talent for mechanical designs. 

By first developing a model wood splitter which was powered by a water-wheel inspired by cucumber slices, the brothers succeeded to build huge steam-powered locomotives that slid on the skis. 

These were also powered by huge tracks in the rear, which provided railroad vehicles the provision of not limiting each other on the road. 

He was also the inventor of many other innovative products which included a pulpwood debarker, or pulpwood crusher.

In the 1900s, he invented the equipment which was called "continuous-track equipment", which he patented establishing his company named Lombard Steam Log Hauler. This company was formed n the year 1901.

He licensed his ideas to the Holt Manufacturing, which further led the way to Caterpillar after his heir David Roberts.


After 1917, Lombard's main focus was on betterment of the combustion engines in his company.  

Inventor David Robert shaped the project of Lombard drawing his "train track tractor" in 1904, which could be produced by the Holt Manufacturing in 1914.

Train track tractor, which was transformed into "Caterpillar" (1907), wasn’t developed as a weapon at first.

It was suitable in conventional terrain mainly for agricultural purposes, but it played a pivotal role in tank production.

Sprung suspensions were omitted for the production of the first tank, and the track plates were improved.

It was used for the first time in 1916, in the Battle of the Somme after receiving permission from allies.

However, the Germans easily damaged it.

Holt Manufacturing converted the "Caterpillar" into the first model of tanks in 1917.

Shortly after the British troops won the Cambrai Battle against the Germans, who were expecting a customary pre-assault artillery barrage.

The Invention of the Paravane by Lt. Burney and Cdr. Usborne

The extraordinary Naval Airman Neville Florian Usborne was born on 27th of February, 1883, in Queenstown, Ireland.

His career in the military boasts an impressive record from the time he entered into the British Navy Forces with impressive results from the exam of Civil Service Commission,

Neville Usborne was part of multiple airship invention teams.

Shocked by the Lusitania catastrophe, which resulted in 1200 deaths, Usborne joined Lieutenant Burney, and together they succeeded in building paravanes.

Lieutenant Charles Dennis Burney was an English aeronautical engineer and an inventor.

He was born on 28th of December, 1888, in England as the son of Admiral Sir Cecil Burney and Lucinda Marion Burnett. 

Following the steps of his father, he rose up quickly in the British army, and he was also someone deeply influenced by the Lusitania incident.

He and Usborne developed the model for a paravane to destroy oceanic mines because of this wild victory by the German army,

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5 Inventions of WW1 and The Engineers Behind Them
Source: The Royal Navy during the Second World War/Wikimedia Commons

How a Paravane Works

According to the model, this is how it basically worked: 

"The paravane would be strung out and streamed alongside a towing ship, normally from the bow.

The wings of the paravane would tend to force the body away from the towing ship, placing a lateral tension on the towing wire.

If the tow cable snagged the cable anchoring a mine, then the anchoring cable would be cut, allowing the mine to float to the surface where it could be destroyed by gunfire.

If the anchor cable would not part, the mine and the paravane would be brought together and the mine would explode harmlessly against the paravane.

The cable could then be retrieved, and a replacement paravane fitted." 

Thanks to the paravane, British and American armies laid around 70.000 mines from the Orkneys to Norway in order to beat the Germans from June to October 1918. The mines then be cleared by eighty-two ships in exactly five months after the war. 

When Usborne died during an experimental flight for the British army at the age of 33, Burney kept developing explosive paravanes and anti-submarine weapons, a.k.a "high speed sweeps," until 1939.

His "Toraplane," an early air-launched gliding torpedo, and the gliding bomb "Doravane“ were forbidden in 1942. 

Burney published his ideas in his book "The World, the Air and the Future" in 1929.

The Short Brothers Deliver A Game-Changing Airship and 'Fokker's Scrouge' makes everything possible

The origin of Aerospace industry dates back to the year 1903, and leads to the Wright Brothers.

As Wilbur and Orville Wright were successful in making the first sustained flight, their devices became popular all over the world. 

In March 1909, Eustace, Horst, and Oswald Short purchased the license to develop Wright airplanes with their engineering team for the company Short Brothers.

At the same time, France and Germany began to manufacture their own "Wright planes," growing their air fleets rapidly. 

By 1914, France had successfully built 1500 aircraft, Germany 1000 and Britain 176 military aircraft.

The French army undertook most of the full aircraft provision for the Allies in World War I.

Even so, the British Short Brothers built two large rigid airships for the Admiralty following successful experiments in Cardington, Bedford.

Both airships were built with a steel frame and corrugated iron sheet was measuring around 700 ft in length and 235 ft in width, with a clear span of 180 ft and height from floor to ridge of 144 ft.

The invention was super efficient and it was apt to help the Allies counter the German Zeppelins that were used in the first strategic aerial bombing on civilian targets in the UK. 

Unfortunately, the Germans attracted to their side the genius Anthony Fokker to their side, a key figure in the beginnings of Aerospace industry.

Anthony Herman Gerard Fokker

5 Inventions of WW1 and The Engineers Behind Them
Source: Anthony Fokker/Wikimedia

Anthony Herman Gerard Fokker was born on April 6, 1890, in Kediri, of the Indonesian Java Island.

At the age of 20, he taught himself to fly and established his first aircraft factory in Johannisthal, Berlin. Today, he is popularly known as a Dutch airman and a pioneer aircraft manufacturer, 

He is known for over forty airplane projects, which he sold to various companies in the United States.

In 1915, the Allies invented a simple model for the "interrupted gear," a major engineering development, which made aerial warfare possible for the first time.

5 Inventions of WW1 and The Engineers Behind Them
Source: Interrupter Gear/Wikimedia Commons

The device provided a synchronization of bullets which was not to shoot the propeller. Then it was made possible to fire a machine gun through the propeller arc without hitting the blades. The propeller itself was designed to operate this gun at right intervals.

One of the most successful French aviators, Roland Garros, was captured by the Germans on April 18th, 1915.

Anthony Fokker took the technology of interrupted gear system and designed a more improved version of it, the influence of which is recorded as "Fokker Scrouge“ in history.

On the other hand, historical records also show that Fokker had just been working on an invention similar to that of interrupted gear six months before Roland Garros was taken,- but the Allies kept improving their aircraft technology in 1916. 

To oppress the German influence in the air, Blackburn Aircraft Company designed and built two prototypes of an anti-submarine floatplane with a landplane version.

However, the test results in early 1918 were disappointing for the Allies.

Later on, they could damage the German army. Fokker sold his plane models to the United States and the American army. 

The American fleet had 49 airplanes in 1914 and was producing annually well over 21.000 planes at the end of World War I.

Fokker also maintained an aircraft factory in the Netherlands and organized the first non-stop flight across the United States in his Fokker T-2

In 1926, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett made their successful flight over the North Pole thanks to Fokker’s Trimotor plane.

Later on, he collected all his memories in his book "The Flying Dutchman," published in 1931.

Charles Henry Wordingham, The Man Who Overhauled Electrical Systems

Charles Henry Wordingham, one of the most influential electricians of the World War I era, was born on the 14th of April 1866 in London.

He studied Engineering and Applied Sciences from 1882 to 1885 at King’s College.

He worked for United Telephone and London Electric Supply Coordination as an Assistant Engineer at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1889. He was quickly promoted from Assistant to the Chief of the Standardizing Department. 

What makes him popular is his reputation for being the driving force behind nearly every section of electrical works in World War I such as in British Navy as an advisor. After his works in dockyards and other naval establishments, he provided large power supplies for the Greater London area.

He is most commonly associated with the standardization and modernization of electric systems

After 1903, as the Head of the Electrical Engineering Department of the Admiralty in London, he introduced many new features to the system. 

One of the great examples is the lead-covered paper-insulated cables for principal mains on the larger ships, which were efficiently used by the British Navy efficiently during World War I. 

He developed his later projects with Manchester Corporation by providing simple models for today’s modern electric systems.  

Hidden Engineering Heroes: Hertha Ayrton and Verena Holmes

5 Inventions of WW1 and The Engineers Behind Them
Source: Portrait of Hertha Ayrton/Wikimedia Commons

Hertha Marks Ayrton, the Mathematician Who Registered 26 Patents

Hertha Marks Ayrton, who was born in Hampshire on 28th April, 1854, was a British mathematician, engineer, physicist, and inventor.

She was awarded the Hughes Medal in 1906 by the Royal Society for her work on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. 

She studied in Girton, Cambridge, and registered 26 patents for mathematical dividers, arc lamps and electrodes from 1884 until her death in 1923. 

Her rise in the scientific world can be attributed to her successful inventions. Besides, she constantly improved herself with ambition and imagination.

While nursing her sick husband at a seaside resort, Ayrton noticed how ripples were created by the action of water on sand. 

In 1899, she became the first female member of the Electrical Engineers.

Sadly her projects were rejected in 1902 by the Royal Society because of her marital status. 

Ayrton kept researching vortices to push gas back and to expel it from a trench developing a fan made of cane and canvas.

During World War I, over 100,000 of Ayrton's gas-repelling fans were eventually issued to soldiers on the Western Front. 

Verena Holmes: Engineer, Inventor, Draughtsman and Teacher

Verena Holmes was another female engineer, and an inventor who was able to shine in the war times. 

Born on 23th of June 1889 in Ashford, the daughter of a school’s inspector, she used to take her dolls apart to see how they worked.

When World War I broke out, she initially built wooden aircraft propellers in Shoreditch and later worked for an aero-engine firm in Lincoln. 

Evenings, she would educate her students in Shoreditch Technical Institute and a technical college in Lincoln. 

She led the way to dozens of medical and safety devices and internal combustion engine improvements during World War I. 

She has to her name numerous inventions, such as the Holmes and Wingfield pneumo-thorax apparatus for the treatment of war patients who suffer from tuberculosis, 

She had many and various engines projects (Marine, locomotive, oil, diesel, etc.) and unpatented inventions. 

Before the end of the war, she completed an apprenticeship as a draughtsman and was later awarded the bachelor of Science in 1922.

Dedicating her life to the advancement of women, she founded the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919

Women Engineers During World War I

By 1918, almost a million women were employed in ammunition factories and engineering positions due to the big demand-supply gap in ammunition. 

5 Inventions of WW1 and The Engineers Behind Them
Source: Women in Industry during the First World War/Wikimedia 

The number of recorded female workers for the war industry was 212,000 in 1917, and their contribution was clear: 80% of shells were produced by women. This was solely in England.

More Inventions of World War I

Even though some could not be credited to their rightful inventors and engineers, here are some other technological inventions deserve to be mentioned.

Notable advancements include mustard gas, which was adapted by German and Austrian scientists and made from chlorine gas.

Another well-known invention of the time is the flamethrower.

Beyond these many more patented ideas contributed to the development of science and were handled in the 1920s, but without the above names and their projects, today’s technology wouldn’t find its current shape. 

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