Weapons designers and engineers created a host of goofy experimental weapons as they sought to deal with the new perils of the world’s first Industrial Age war.
The great powers that fell headlong into World War I did so with their high commands operating under the naive illusion that military technology had advanced little since the 19th century. They foresaw flags and cavalry charges and an armistice perhaps as early as Christmas 1914. What actually lay ahead was four years of the most hellish carnage the world had ever seen. Millions bled their lives away in Western Front trench warfare— death on a scale that nobody could have predicted.
A host of weapons systems that are integral to modern military engagement either made their battlefield debut or saw first wide-scale use during WWI. Submarines and aircraft had seen limited use in combat before 1914, but they both changed the nature of warfare in World War I. By this standard, one might also call WWI the first “three-dimensional war.”
The nature of combat in WWI was also defined by the use of tanks and machine guns. The conflict also saw the widespread use of poison gas, a weapon that made so terrible an impression on the combatants that it was not used in combat during World War II, except by the Japanese against the Chinese.
Most of the major weapons systems of World War I are well documented, but the war also inspired many lesser-known and often amusing weapons. As during the century’s later wars, there were strange, often ludicrous proposals for weapons that embodied technology that had yet to be created. There was a proposal to freeze clouds and position artillery atop airplanes so Allied guns would have the high ground. Other very strange artillery proposals included an enormous pump to hurl a stream of concrete across no man’s land to fill the German trenches. There was also a suggestion to use artillery shells to drop containers of snakes into German trenches.
A proposal that was actually advanced during WWI suggested suspending giant magnets from balloons to pluck rifles and machine guns out of enemy trenches. Preposterous as it seems in hindsight, it was also seriously suggested that vultures be trained to pick the mortar out of brick smokestacks, and that such birds be sent to German industrial cities to topple smokestacks. One of the most bizarre gadgets that was suggested— although there is no known science to support such a weapon— involved a means to blot out the moon to prevent German bombers from being able to fly missions at night. The concept seemed simple: If searchlights using white light could be used for illumination, why couldn’t a black light beam put the moon in darkness? This question has yet to be answered.
But science has a way of catching up with ideas that once seemed ridiculous. During WWI, a number of scientists proposed the use of electromagnetic guns. Those weapons had a basis in scientific fact, for such a gun had already been patented by the great Norwegian-born explorer and inventor Kristian Birkeland. Before the war, Birkeland had designed and test-fired an electromagnetic gun, achieving a muzzle velocity of 325 feet per second and a range of about a kilometer. None of his guns were actually used, but at the end of the 20th century, electromagnetic guns, now called railguns, were the subject of intense study by the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative Office.
Among the many new weapons that were used for the first time, we highlight some that were deployed on a limited basis and others that were proposals and prototypes, overshadowed and forgotten footnotes.
Helmets and Body Armor
Body armor has been used in conflicts from antiquity through the Middle Ages until today. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, its extra weight was abandoned in favor of lightness and mobility. In WWI, because of the advent of the ubiquitous machine gun and the constant danger of shrapnel from exploding shells, armor once again seemed like a good idea.
Helmets became standard equipment during WWI, and they have remained so ever since. Britain, France and Germany each adopted a unique design based on their interpretation of what would work best. While the German design was seen as perhaps giving the best protection, the United States adopted the British design because it was lighter and easier to mass produce. Weighing just two pounds, the helmet was not intended to stop a direct hit from a rifle or machine gun round, which would have required four times the thickness and weight, but to protect the wearer from shrapnel.
Because the eyes were unprotected by the helmet, various modifications were considered to shelter the eyes from splinters of metal, wood and stone. One system developed by the E.J. Codd Co. of Baltimore involved a fringe of short lengths of fairly heavy chain attached to the rim of the helmet. Such an arrangement was an adaptation of the chain doors then used in factories where metal and glass fragments were a hazard. To this day, chain and chain mail fireplace screens are common.
The search for body armor led to a variety of experiments, including some that revisited the armor used by the knights of the 15th and 16th centuries. Though many schemes were advanced, none was adopted for widespread use, mainly because of weight. Body armor that could stop bullets would have weighed 55 pounds. Indeed, it was not until the advent of Kevlar body armor in the latter part of the 20th century that any such type of gear became practical.
Tanks and Armored Vehicles
Following the operational debut of tanks and armored vehicles in WWI, numerous configurations were designed and fielded, as tacticians and weapon designers grappled with the question of exactly what a tank should look like. Most ended up as either bizarre curiosities or complete dead ends, except for the French Renault FT-17, whose simple turreted configuration set the pattern for future tanks.
Unusual Artillery Shells
Most of the millions of artillery shells fired during WWI carried a high-explosive charge. Others carried alternate deadly agents, including poison gas. The payloads of other shells were similar in concept to some of the kinetic-energy weapons that were considered by the Strategic Defense Initiative Office in the 1980s and by the National Missile Defense Agency in the 21st century. One such shell was packed with heavy chains designed to rip through barbed-wire entanglements. Yet another was designed to deploy masses of barbed wire when fired into a group of attacking enemy troops or into a trench. Such a shell would create hellish pain and havoc when it exploded.
Probably the strangest artillery shell ever designed was the Andrew Graham shell, which contained 12 loaded rifle barrels. The shell would be fired at enemy aircraft, and when in their vicinity, fire a barrage of .30-caliber projectiles. The concept was innovative, but problems with aiming and timing proved insurmountable.
Aviation technology advanced rapidly in many respects during WWI. Excellent aircraft and powerful engines evolved, as did ways of arming aircraft. For most of the conflict, however, airplane pilots didn’t carry parachutes. The crews of airships and observation balloons were equipped with parachutes, but it was easy to step out of a balloon basket, and it was another thing entirely to successfully exit a fast-moving airplane with a bulky parachute. During WWI, the combatants designed and explored various methods of escaping an airplane with a parachute until the Germans introduced a reasonably workable system in 1918.
Many of the gadgets developed for the U.S. armed services during WWI were as much about saving lives as taking them. The U.S. Navy experimented with various designs ranging from mattresses filled with kapok to self-inflating gasbags.
Today the use of a laser rifle sight for pinpointing targets at great distance is routine for both military snipers and assassins. The idea is not new, having originated with an ingenious system developed during WWI. This precursor to the modern system used an innovative design to switch on the light. The wiring that connected the battery to the light bulb passed through a chamber containing a small amount of mercury, which served as an electrical conductor. When the revolver was brought level for firing, the mercury would flow in such a way as to complete the circuit, illuminating the light. Thus equipped, the user of the gun could rely on the light for aiming at targets directly in front of him but not above or below. The light would have had a wider beam than a laser, making it easier for an opponent to see the user in the dark when it was on.
Mobile Signal Towers
Today we take wireless communications for granted, but in WWI, as in previous conflicts dating back to the Middle Ages and before, communicators often had to rely on line of sight. Telegraph communications had been used in the Civil War, and field telephones were available in WWI, but both systems depended on wires that had to be installed and could be easily cut or tapped.
Low-tech though it was, semaphore signaling was more versatile. The operator depended on high ground so the signal could be seen at long distances. Mobile signal towers offered flexibility. The tower could be raised to about 25 feet and driven anywhere that it was needed, and it could be folded down for going under low bridges. It could also be adapted for use as a radio-transmission tower. The downside was that the semaphore man was vulnerable to snipers while on his perch.
During WWI a number of proposals were advanced for developing floating fortresses for defending ports and other waterways. The concept evolved from the notion of arming light buoys with heavy machine guns and artillery. An operator or operators could be stationed aboard such buoys to engage approaching enemy warships. Since such a fortress would be extremely vulnerable to enemy fire because its operators could not take evasive action, measures were taken to permit the buoys to submerge.
Valves and compressed-air tanks would have taken time to operate in an emergency submersion, so the concept gradually evolved into offshore fortresses that could be permanently submerged except during resupply and crew changes. The offensive weapons of the submerged fortresses were to have been torpedoes, which would have been more effective against enemy warships than guns. Submerged fortresses could also have been made larger than those that floated on the surface. But no such weapons are believed to have been deployed.
In the last decades of the 20th century, the term smart bomb entered the lexicon of modern warfare, and the concept of artificial intelligence has been floating around the data-processing world for decades. An early definition of artificial intelligence was offered by John McCarthy at the 1956 Dartmouth Artificial Intelligence Conference, when he described it as “making a machine behave in ways that would be called intelligent if a human were so behaving.”
In WWI three aiming systems for infantry rifles pioneered the artificial intelligence concept. The German Müller rifle and the American Eley rifle used an adjustable pendulum system to pull the trigger when the gun was aimed properly and to lock the trigger when the gun was at an incorrect elevation. Captain Eley, who developed the gun, is not to be confused with Eley Ltd., of Cordfield, England, which today is a major manufacturer of .22-caliber sporting ammunition.
The French Bourdells rifle placed an electromagnet in the stock to fire the gun. The flow of current to the magnet was controlled by an ampoule of mercury, which allowed the current to pass only when the rifle was at the proper angle. As the phrase goes, “You can’t miss.”
Offensive Water Jackets
In WWI, the British army issued flotation devices to soldiers who couldn’t swim so that they wouldn’t drown when crossing streams or canals. When the U.S. Army deployed to France in 1917, Yankee ingenuity turned these life preservers into offensive weapons. The idea was that soldiers could be positioned in waterways and attack the enemy from these positions. The Germans would not have expected fire from a nearby canal. The downside was that floating infantry would be easy prey for enemy gunners.
The problem with launching a torpedo attack at night against enemy ships running under blackout conditions is obvious. In the days before radar and night-vision devices, target ships turned out their lights on all but the most moonlit nights, and they were virtually invisible. To address this situation, Alphonse Fernandez developed a torpedo in which an arc light replaced the explosive charge. A timer would switch on the light after the torpedo was a safe distance from the launching vessel. Such torpedoes were to have been gyroscopically maneuvered until they located their target. At that point, armed torpedoes could be launched.
Brévaire Acetylene Mortar
One of the first infantry weapons to use explosive gas rather than explosive solids—such as gunpowder—was the muzzle-loading acetylene mortar, designed in 1917 by R.A. Brévaire for use in the trenches. After pressurized air and acetylene were let into the combustion chamber, ignition was by means of a simple spark plug. The shells were spin-stabilized by means of fins or vanes. The highly explosive nature of pressurized acetylene made it a dangerous substance to have stockpiled in an environment endangered by shells and small-arms fire.
Combination Trench Mirror and Cigarette Case
Not a weapon, but certainly a valuable piece of equipment for the doughboys in the trenches was George Darling’s remarkable magnifying trench mirror that doubled as a cigarette case. These mirrors were silver plated and carried a five-year warranty. For a dollar, Darling’s manufacturing company in Providence, R.I., would send them to a purchaser in the United States, or post them directly to the soldiers overseas or in Stateside training camps.
Held in utmost secrecy during WWI was the paravane, a torpedolike device used in minesweeping. Fitted with fins and vanes and towed by a ship, paravanes were deployed and towed from both sides of the bow of a ship passing through suspected minefields. Wings kept the paravane away from the sides of the ship. A depth-control valve, based on that of a torpedo, controlled rudderlike devices on the aft end to determine how deep the paravane would travel. When the cable anchoring the paravane to the ship caught the mooring cable of the mine, it pulled the mine toward the paravane, where the cable would be cut and the explosive would either sink or float to the surface for subsequent disposal.
During WWI, paravanes were referred to by the British as PVs, and by the Yanks as otters. A rare lasting success among the far-fetched gizmos, they continue to be used in minesweeping today and have also been adapted as roll-damping systems in civilian vessels, especially fishing trawlers, to improve comfort and reduce crew fatigue.
Adapted from Secret Gadgets and Strange Gizmos: High Tech (and Low Tech) Innovations of the U.S. Military, by Bill Yenne. Published by Zenith Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing. Yenne is the author of more than two dozen books on military, aviation and historical topics.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.