Military Wiki

Major Walter Gordon Wilson (1874–1957) was a mechanical engineer, inventor and member of the British Royal Naval Air Service. He was credited by the 1919 Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors as the co-inventor of the tank, along with Sir William Tritton.[1]


Walter was born in Blackrock, County Dublin on 21 April 1874. He was a naval cadet on HMS Britannia. In 1894 he entered King's College, Cambridge, where he studied the mechanical sciences tripos, graduating with a first class degree, B.A., in 1897.[2] Wilson acted as 'mechanic' for the Hon C.S. Rolls on several occasions while they were undergraduates in Cambridge.

Aero engine 1898

Interested in powered flight he collaborated with Percy Sinclair Pilcher and the Hon Adrian Verney-Cave later Lord Braye to attempt to make an aero-engine from 1898. After the prototype was designed but before it was built Pilcher was killed in an 1899 gliding accident. The shock ended Wilson's plans and he switched to building the Wilson–Pilcher motor car which used epicyclic gears. After marrying in 1904 he joined Armstrong-Whitworth to design their car. The sole known surviving Wilson-Pilcher car is maintained in Derby by the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust. From 1908 to 1914[3] he worked with J & E Hall of Dartford designing the Hallford lorry which saw extensive service with the army during World War I.


With the outbreak of the First World War, Wilson rejoined the navy and the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, which protected the Royal Naval Air Service in France. When the Admiralty began investigating armoured fighting vehicles under the Landships Committee in 1915 20 Squadron was assigned to it and Wilson was placed in charge[3] of the experiments. Wilson worked with the agricultural engineer William Tritton resulting in the first British tank called "Little Willie". At Wilson's suggestion the tracks were extended right round the vehicle. This second design first called Wilson, then the Centipede then "Big Willie" and finally "Mother" became the prototype for the Mark I tank.[3]

Designing several of the early British tanks, he incorporated epicyclic gearing which was used in the Mark V tank to allow it to be steered by a single driver rather than the four previously needed. In 1937 he provided a new steering design which gave a larger turning radius at higher speeds.[3]

He transferred to the British Army in 1916 becoming a Major in the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps - the embryonic Tank Corps. He was mentioned in dispatches twice and was appointed companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1917.

Wilson self-changing gearbox

In 1928 he invented a self-changing gearbox, and formed Improved Gears Ltd with J D Siddeley to develop the design commercially. Improved Gears later became Self-Changing Gears Ltd. Wilson self-changing gearboxes were available on most subsequent Armstrong Siddeley automobiles, manufactured up to 1960,[4] as well as on Daimler, Lanchester, Talbot, ERA, AC, Invicta and Riley automobiles as well as buses, railcars and marine launches.

His work on gears was used in many British tanks.


  1. Bovington Tank Museum
  2. "Wilson, Walter Gordon (WL894WG)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 A. A. Miller, ‘Wilson, Walter Gordon (1874–1957)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  4. Bill Smith: Armstrong Siddeley Motors; Veloce, Dorchester, UK, 2006

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).