Tanks Landmarks & History (1480 to today)
Note: We published in the previous version of our website (2011-2015) an animated Timeline on tank design, a great feature that was not compatible unfortunately with the new version of the CMS. Now it’s back again, for your enjoyment.
Defining the origin of modern tanks and armoured cars is obviously related to a definition: A motorized wheeled vehicle, armed, and protected by armour. All are wheeled, although some get tracks around their wheels to improve their off-road capabilities. These should have been “armoured tracked vehicles” or ATV, but this acronym never did it, and instead by a twist of language (driven by intelligence and secret), they are now universally called “tanks”.
This website is all about these vehicles, the wheeled ones, called “armoured cars” and the tracked ones, the “tanks”.
At an early age, several civilizations bring concepts which were not “early tanks” but came close. Siege rams and assault towers, including those not even intended for an assault but to clear of enemy walls from defenders, were all armoured, wheeled, and armed in some way or another. However they do not have an autonomous power but relied on human and animal force. Some semi-legendary mechanical chariots of the Chinese were autonomous, even rocket-firing. Archimedes developed a mechanical odometer, but this vehicle was neither armed or protected.
In Alexandria, Hero with his aerolipile led perhaps to other long gone developments (as a steam-driven mechanical vehicle), but no one can doubt the engineering capabilities of the ancient greeks when seeing first hand the baffling complexity of the Antykhitera Mechanism… It is no surprise that the renaissance saw the rediscovering of this ancient engineering genius and led to Leonardo Da Vinci “tank”.
But it was the arrival and fast progress of the internal combustion engine that led the next step at the end of the XIXth century.
By the XXth century, two countries were at the forefront of this development: Great Britain and France, with some marked advantage for the first. After the world first petrol-driven armed vehicle and the first armoured car (By the British engineer Simms), the French, with some help of a Russian officer, devised the first “modern” armoured car, with a few month in advance of the Austro-Hungarians. From 1914 to 1916, the armoured cars reigned supreme when speed and mobility matters.
But they were excluded from the main battleground, on the muddy no-man’s land of the western front, where only artillery tractors could go. This was the origin of the tank. Take a caterpillar, put an armoured box around and give it some machine-guns, and you have something that could really make the long-awaited breakthrough. The British were first with their Mark I, followed by the French, and both countries perfected their models. The British “invented” also the light tank, the self-propelled gun, the armoured personal carrier, the amphibious tank, but the French devised the first “modern” tank with the FT, and later the first operational “super-heavy tank”.
By 1918, these were at last well-known and moreover well-used, and eventually able to decide the fate of Western Europe, as well as creating a brand new branch of the army. Tactical and strategical developments took again years to mature, but there was a formidable boiling of ideas on the technical side as well.
When world war two erupted -the most mechanized conflict so far- these machines get through a fiersome process that can only be compared to Darwin’s natural selection. When tanks were a matter of survival for a nation, and not only made a difference on the battlefield. With two more years, this evolution was unprecedented. Tanks from the coldwar were directly derived from these 1944-45 models, but evolved soon into a single “universal” type known today as the “main battle tank” of MBT, updated for the atomic age, electronics, and now the numeric age.
At the same time, the armoured cars of old -built by carmakers- became high-technology wheeled tanks that rivalled those on many point, including firepower, protection, even their off-road capabilities. This story is not over yet…