When America Built An Electric Hybrid Tank

Built over a hundred years ago, the first American tank had some surprisingly modern features…

By Google Arts & Culture

GE Hybrid Tank (1918-12-24) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

In 1917, the United States had a problem. The First World War had been raging across Europe for three years, and the US had just been dragged out of isolationism and into the fight. That same year, the Allies had deployed their new secret weapon to break the deadlock - the tank.

While some military planners thought that tanks were useless gimmicks, some recognised that they were the future of warfare. The US army needed a tank, fast. Thankfully, they had a thriving car and agricultural industry, and inventive engineers…

The very first American tank was built by a partnership of the Holt Manufacturing Company (now Caterpillar Inc.) and the General Electric Company. Their design was radical; an existing Holt model 75 tractor fitted for speed and reliability with a hybrid gas-electric engine.

GE Hybrid Tank Drawing (1917-05-25) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

This scale drawing shows the design in three dimensions. There would be a crew of six (commander, driver, two machine gunners, a main gunner and a loader) protected by boxy 15mm steel armour, carried on caterpillar tracks driven by the hybrid engine.

Unlike modern plug-in hybrid vehicles, the gas and and electric engines weren't separate. The gas engine powered electric generators, which in turn powered electric motors attached to the tracks. The result was… unwieldy and unreliable, but not unprecedented…

The French Saint-Chamond tank was based on a hybrid engine installed on Holt tracks. But Holt's implementation was particularly prone to overheating, so a complex water-cooled radiator system was installed, and the crew always had the option of opening the rear door.

GE Hybrid Tank, 1918 (1918-12-24) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

The prototype was put through its paces in 1918 and was unsatisfactory in almost every way. The radiator increased the weight of the tank to 25 tons, the 90hp engine struggled, the tank's top speed was a snail's pace 6mph on the flat… and nothing on an incline.

GE Hybrid Gun Mount (1919-12-30) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

The tank was an utter failure, and quickly scrapped. Instead a variation was tested as a gun mount and tractor. In this role it was more successful, but by this time the armistice had been signed and the war was over.

Renault tank during WWI (20th Century)National WWI Museum and Memorial

The Holt Gas-Electric Hybrid tank was a dead end in the evolution of the tank from battlefield curiosity to mainstay of the modern military. It was quite literally outpaced by designs such as the British Mark V and the French Renault FT-17 - the ancestor of all modern tanks.

LIFE Photo Collection

That said, the US military hasn't looked away from pioneering propulsion technologies. The M1 Abrams, its main battle tank, was the first to use a turbine engine, producing a respectable 1500hp. And plans currently exist to use hybrid engines in future armoured vehicles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps