WALTER GORDON WILSON

W.G. Wilson was born in 1874 in County Dublin, Ireland, there were eight children in the family of which he was almost the youngest but they were comfortably off, to begin with at any rate.

He joined HMS Britannia as a naval cadet and then served aboard HMS Dreadnought in the Mediterranean. This would have been the HMS Dreadnought  of 1875 which was out of service by 1905, not the famous battleship of 1906. Sub-Lieutenant Wilson left the Navy in 1894 and went to Cambridge to study engineering. He then served as a mechanic to the Honourable Charles Rolls, who in those days was driving French Panhards.

In 1897 Wilson went into partnership with Percy Sinclair Pilcher, forming Wilson-Pilcher Ltd. Wilson had developed an interest in automobiles while Pilcher was fascinated by Wilson smallaviation, in those days meaning gliders. Both men had an interest in the possibilities of powered flight so while Wilson developed a suitable engine Pilcher patented a triplane. Plans were afoot to demonstrate the new machine on 30 September 1899 but it was not ready so Pilcher, not wishing to disappoint the crowd, decided to fly a glider instead, but this crashed and Pilcher was killed. Wilson was not there at the time, the two men disagreed over certain details, but the accident certainly upset Walter Wilson and ended his interest in powered flight, four years ahead of the Wright brothers. He had a tendency to argue with his collaborators and could be very awkward when he was sure he was right.

Following his partner’s death Wilson took to making cars, which he called Wilson-Pilchers in honour of his late friend. They were of a very advanced design, probably too advanced for the time. Wilson-Pilcher was taken over by Armstrong-Whitworth in 1904 but production ended by 1907. Armstrong-Whitworth built cars to their own design after that. In 1906 Wilson designed a species of armoured car which was built by Armstrong-Whitworth, one of the first of the type. In fact it’s hard to be sure whether it was meant to be an armoured car or an artillery tractor but whatever it was the firm did not develop it.

In 1908 Wilson, now married and with two sons, moved down to Kent where he worked for J & E Hall Ltd. of Dartford, where he may have been responsible for the design of the Hallford lorry, a rather conventional type which saw military service during the First World War. Wilson is also reported to have designed an armoured car, although this was never built.

In December 1914 Wilson went back to the Royal Navy, whether he rejoined or was recalled is not clear but he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and, due to his engineering skills served with the Royal Naval Air Service; his first job seems to have been supervising the construction of Seabrook armoured lorries by Portholme Aerodrome Ltd. of Huntingdon. Later in 1915 he became attached to the Admiralty Landships Committee as an assistant to Colonel R E B Crompton, technical advisor to the Landships Committee. Wilson was sent to the McEwan & Pratt Works at Burton-on-Trent where he supervised trials of two Bullock Creeping Grip Tractors acquired by Crompton from the USA, particularly testing them joined back to back in pursuit of Crompton’s plans to build articulated landships. Wilson did not like Crompton’s ideas on articulation but he conducted the tests diligently, even when it was clear that they were not going to work.

In the meantime the War Office took over the landships project from the Admiralty. Crompton was sacked and the work handed over to William Tritton in Lincoln, managing director of William Foster & Co. of that city. Walter Wilson was appointed as overseer to the project. At first this meant working in Burton-on-Trent all day and then travelling to Lincoln to work with Tritton in the evenings. But before long Wilson worked full-time at Lincoln alongside William Tritton, for no matter what the term overseer meant the two men really worked as partners. Indeed it seems that Wilson got on a lot better with Tritton than he did with others he had worked with. The two men worked together from a room in the White Hart Hotel in Lincoln, first on the Number One Lincoln Machine followed by Little Willie but while Tritton designed the tracks, in September 1915, it was Walter Wilson who came up with the idea of a machine with tracks running all the way around the vehicle, what became the classic British tank design of the Great War.

While he seems to have worked well with Tritton one cannot say the same about some of the others involved. In particular Albert Stern whose forceful style but lack of mechanical knowledge seems to have grated with Wilson. On one matter in particular it was outstanding and reveals how little people like Stern  appreciated the innate genius of Walter Wilson by now a Major in the Army. During his years designing cars Wilson had been particularly interested in gearboxes, especially the epicyclic type and in 1916 proposed a new system for use in the forthcoming Mark IV tank.  Wilson regarded the existing system, relying on four men stationed in different parts of the tank as being crude, clumsy and inefficient. Instead he designed a system using two simple epicyclic gearboxes in the track frames that worked, in effect, like a clutch and brake steering arrangement. Stern, on the other hand, was enamoured by the petrol electric transmission adopted by the French and promoted that, although Wilson realised at once that it would never work. As a result Stern ordained a trial of the two systems plus any others that came along to be held at Oldbury, near Birmingham in March 1917. Despite the fact that the tank to which it was fitted was not working well Wilson’s system was obviously so much better than any of the others that it was decided to adopt it.

However it was too late for the Mark IV tank which was already entering production so it had to have the old four-man drive system. Wilson’s epicyclic final drive was adopted for the Mark V model of 1918 and for some subsequent types. In addition to the Mark V Walter Wilson is credited with the design of the Mark VI (which was never built) and the Medium B among others and it did not end there.

Wilson, who by now was seen as the tank expert bar none, albeit a rather prickly one, was not invited to join the team designing the first Anglo/American tank, the Mark VIII. Design was in the hands of G J Rackham, for the Tank Corps, and the American engineer Herbert Alden although a version of Wilson’s epicyclic steering system was used, and of course all-round tracks which had been Wilson’s idea in the first place. In fact Wilson believed that the Mark VIII was too big, he felt that the existing Mark V was more than good enough.

The Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors sat in 1919. It heard from numerous witnesses and claimants and in the end awarded the lion’s share to Sir William Tritton (knighted, February 1917) and Walter Wilson who had been made CMG (Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George). It amounted to £15,000. At least his efforts had been recognised, though maybe not as much as he deserved.

After the First World War Wilson, having retired from the Army, formed a company, Improved Gears Ltd., with J D Siddeley of Armstrong-Siddeley (later Lord Kenilworth) and turned his attention to manufacturing pre-selector gearboxes for motor cars. He appeared to have turned his back on tanks but around 1928 he was consulted by the War Office about problems they were having with the huge Independent tank, although he cured these there were so many other faults in the design that it was never adopted for production. John Siddeley retired in 1936 and sold Armstrong-Siddeley to Hawkers, the aircraft people. At about the same time Wilson moved his factory to Coventry and, with the loss of such a senior director changed the name of his firm to Self-Changing Gears Ltd. But since Hawkers were not really interested in building cars and the new management at Armstrong-Siddeley adopted conventional gearboxes instead of the Wilson pre-selector, Wilson turned his attention to producing pre-selector gearboxes for buses, notably in conjunction with AEC, who built buses for London Transport. This is what Wilson became most famous for and it brought him into contact once again with Rackham who was by now AEC’s senior bus designer.

Wilson pre-selector gearboxes were used in some Light Tanks in the late twenties/early thirties. He later designed some six and eight-speed pre-selector steering systems for experimental tanks but the machinery was getting larger and heavier so it was never adopted, simple two-speed steering epicyclics were used instead, fitted to such tanks as the Covenanter and Crusader but in mainstream tank production the new combined gearbox and steering system developed by Dr Henry Merritt was preferred since it was fully regenerative.

Since the war a combined Merritt/Wilson gearbox has been introduced using Wilson’s pre-selector system with Merritt’s triple differential steering not only for main battle tanks but also for various other armoured vehicles as well. Walter Wilson himself died in 1957.