Summer 2004

Questions for the Inventor of the Tumbleweed Tank

Paul Maliszewski

Q. In July 1936, Popular Science published a short article heralding your invention of a spherical tank it called “a new addition to modern war machines.” The tank, compared to both a rolling ball and a giant ball as well as a piece of tumbleweed, features a hollow inner sphere that remains stationary. The soldiers—as many as three according to an artist’s rendering accompanying the article—the steering controls, the guns, which point out in every direction, and the engine all are housed inside that hollow, if cramped, inner sphere. An outer shell surrounds the inner sphere. Split into two halves or hemispheres and bristling with metal cleats for traction, the parts of that outer shell turn independently to make the tank move. How does it turn?

Q. So in order to move forward but execute, say, a slight turn to the left, the left half of the outer shell would turn slower than the right, thus pulling the whole vehicle toward the left. And to make a sharp turn to the left, the left half of the outer shell would need to brake, coming to a stop, while the right half did all the turning. Do I have that correct?

Q. And the inner core doesn’t move at all?

Q. What was your inspiration for the tumbleweed tank?

Q. I found registered patents for several other inventions from this period that, like your tank, propose a spherical mode of transportation. What was in the air, as it were, at the time that so many unicycles (vehicles in which a person rides above or outside a single wheel) and monocycles (vehicles in which a person rides inside a single wheel, like a child rolling down a hill inside a rubber inner tube) were being proposed and invented?

Q. In 1933, Angel Garcia Gutierrez, an inventor living in Tarrytown, New York, received a patent for a self-propelled vehicle (US patent no. 1,915,886). “One of the primary objects of the present invention,” Gutierrez wrote, is “to provide a vehicle of the unicycle type which is particularly adapted for use as a fighting vehicle of the type commonly known as tanks.” In 1935, John Archibald Purves, of Trull, England, received a US patent (no. 2,009,904) for a tire-shaped vehicle with tracks along an outer shell that moved around a stationary hollow core. Finally, in February 1938, Julius Rose, of Brooklyn, New York, was granted a patent (no. 2,107,766) for a vehicle looking not unlike Gutierrez’s except improving a bit on the gears that separated the inner and outer rings of his invention with ball bearings.

Q. I wondered about the popularity of spherical vehicles. In Purves’s application I know he makes mention of a time, not long before his invention, presumably, when monocycles and monocars had previously “achieved some publicity in the early days of mechanical road transportation.”

Q. I noticed that the same issue of Popular Science features an article about an inventor, in Philadelphia, I believe, who found that corrugated armor deflects bullets better than flat armor. He fired bullets first at a half-inch-thick piece of flat armor and then again—from the same distance—at a thinner piece of corrugated armor and found that the bullets didn’t penetrate the corrugated armor nearly as well or often. He proposed that the military manufacture tanks—his tank is pretty traditional-looking—wrapped with the special corrugated armor. How well does your tumbleweed tank deflect bullets?

Q. It seems like the spherical shape would help some to deflect bullets and that having two layers means the soldiers inside the inner sphere are protected a bit better, but could you see marrying your tank to this corrugated armor?

Q. In 1923, John J. Pershing, General of the Armies, indicated his displeasure that “very little is being done by any department to advance our knowledge of tank construction and use.” Why did the development of new kinds of tanks lag after the Great War, and how does your invention try to advance the tank state-of-the-art?

Q. Your invention seems to anticipate and even plan for a new war, however imminent, that will be fought pretty much along the same lines as the Great War.

The Tumbleweed Tank from the July 1936 issue of Popular Science.

Q. I mean, insofar as the tumbleweed tank would offer clear advantages in trench warfare situations. Just as an example.

Q. But what if that war is fought differently from World War I?

Q. There will be another war.

Q. You can’t be shocked. I mean, it is what you’re planning for, isn’t it? Why invent a tank if you’re not anticipating another war?

Q. Yes, it’s another world war.

Q. Only one other one so far, but many smaller, undeclared conflicts.

Q. Too numerous to count, really.

Q. You have no idea.

Q. But you’re not alone in getting it wrong. France, for example, invested mightily in the construction of what amounted to an expensive fence, a defensive barrier—the Maginot Line—that might indeed be hard to march against or batter down or even climb over, but actually ends up, as it turns out, being fairly easy to fly planes above.

Q. Well, the armies with tanks—and know that these are very fast tanks—will overtake countries with no tanks at all. This time the tanks provide more than intimidating backup and crucial fire power for the infantry marching ahead. Tanks invade now. Tanks cross borders. Tanks comprise the first and crushing wave of attack.

Q. The infantry follows behind and—in that overly tidy but somehow perfect phrase of the military—mops up.

Q. They’ve been manufacturing the tanks. Their national products are gross, you might say. It’s almost like a war of industrial investment, fighting factory for factory, assembly line versus assembly line, one country’s organizational plan against another’s new management procedure.

Q. The tanks meet and overwhelm countries defended still by cavalries served proudly by gentlemen on horseback. This happens in Poland. It’s almost medieval, when you think about it, these soldiers with sabers at their sides and lances in their hands. Lances. Against tanks. 

Q. Air forces will boast planes that deliver and then drop thousands of tons of bombs. Few people find they have any stomach for ground wars after the great ground war. Explosive bombs and incendiary weapons, bombs designed expressly for burning thatched roofs and wood houses, bombs that blow up and then stick to the skin, burning there. Atomic bombs, too, in a couple of instances. 

Q. Over London some. Dresden and Berlin, too. Over Tokyo. Mostly at night, though not always.

Q. The future’s incredibly grim in that respect, yes.

Q. But you couldn’t know.

Q. How could you have known?

Q. But that’s all you do—that’s all you can do, really—is look back and then look forward again. You make some plans and you carry some of them out. You have some ideas and you manage to see one or two of them through.

Q. It’s just a different war, you know, fought according to different ideas, with different weapons, slightly different, anyway—or else different enough to make things complicated. Not to be vague about it. C. S. Forester, who wrote the Horatio Hornblower books, a series of adventure tales published mostly in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s about naval warfare during the Napoleonic wars, told a story in one of his novels to illustrate a related point. This is quoted in David E. Johnson’s Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the US Army, 1917–1945, a sound book on these very subjects. “It was like the debate of a group of savages,” Forester wrote, “as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered that they would laugh at the man who suggested it.”

Q. In terms of what we’re talking about, you mean?

Q. I guess war and how we wage it is, in a way, that weird piece of metal sticking out of the piece of wood.

Q. You can’t though. You don’t even know to call it a screw. It’s a war, but not one you’d recognize. You don’t have a word for it yet.

Q. You could hardly be blamed. It’s like Forester says, right?

Q. That’s what I’m saying, what else could you do?

Q. Nobody’s laughing. I don’t think anybody’s laughing now.

Paul Maliszewski’s writing has appeared recently in Harper’s and The Paris Review.