"Klaus, if you start singing 'Daisy Bell' one more time, I will shoot you."
Nothing drives human creativity more than a dire need for new ways to kill each other. That's why war is often a time of great technological progress. One side invents the arrow, the other invents the shield. One side invents the atomic bomb, the other invents 101 uses for glow-in-the-dark children. But with every great leap in the advancement of warfare comes a whole bunch of failed experiments, and some of those look less like the product of the greatest minds of a generation, and more like something you'd find in the pages of an Acme catalog.
Most modern-day machineries need this pesky thing called electricity in order to function, but back in the old days, electricity was pretty hard to come by -- especially in the middle of nowhere. That was particularly problematic for armies; it's not like trenches came with built-in outlets for charging your phone, after all. To cope with this energy crisis, the German army turned to their most plentiful natural resources: broken bicycles and men with strong legs.
During World War I, the German army outfitted its troops with "pedal-operated" generators, i.e. bicycles with a bigger dynamo instead of tires. On these tandem bicycles, two German soldiers would sit together intimately, pedaling for power and going nowhere -- like the least romantic French holiday ever. When stumbling upon these bicycle frames, British soldiers marveled at them like it was some weird alien tech. As one officer's letter read: "It is exactly like a tandem bicycle without its wheels. I am not sure if it ever was a bicycle." Leave it to the Germans to create military equipment that can also induce philosophical crises.
The Allied forces speculated that these bikes were mainly used to power the lighting rigs in the German trenches. So the lights going out in a German trench could have two causes: either you were going to have to change a bulb, or write a letter to someone's widow. However, their green energy initiative was deemed successful enough that the Germans ported the system over to round two. Communication networks were more important than ever during World War II, so German troops were again given these tandem bicycles to power their outposts' radio systems in case their batteries or gasoline ran out. It's a shame that there isn't a single WWII movie that has a scene where the stoic U.S. sniper gets distracted during battle because he just spotted two red-faced Bavarians going to town on an exercise bike.
During World War I, militaries across the globe were keenly interested in finding ways to start killing in the air. (They had already mastered earth, fire, and water.) But aviation had barely lifted off, so armies experimented with their new air forces by simply throwing stuff into the air and seeing what stuck. This was the age of biplanes, zeppelins, and, unfortunately for pilots, giant kites.
Means of flight were generally used for reconnaissance and battlefield observation. But giant balloons were easily popped by artillery, and planes had a tendency to just drop out of the air when someone coughed in their general direction. This led armies to experiment with kites, which were much harder to shoot down. Leaving a soldier to literally twist slowly in the wind, however, was not as high on their list of concerns. All he had to worry about was what would kill him first: a German marksman or a stiff breeze.
A typical way of getting a grown man into the air was to first fly a lead kite (which does sound like the punchline of a joke about usefulness) to test wind conditions. Then a series of lighter stringer kites, controlled by winches and ropes, were flown to lift the soldier up, with the number of kites depending on his weight.
The most successful man-kite was invented in Great Britain, where the winged box kite could lift men up to 3000 feet high and was operated with a rigging for increased control. It also sort of made them look like Batman, proving over a century ago that Batman only looks cool in the dark.
While the Americans never got around to using kite scouts during the war, both France and Germany deployed kites on the fronts. According to Scott Skinner, one of the country's foremost kitologists, it was because the "American effort was really sporadic." That was the problem: They just weren't taking war kites seriously enough. The U.S. never got past the testing phase, when one Boston kite maker nearly fell to his death. It was reported that he was saved by "the many kites by which he was suspended" which "parachuted and prevented him from dashing to death on the earth." At which point still no one went "Oh right, parachutes!"
One of the biggest changes between 19th- and 20th-century warfare was the amount of fancy dress. In the past, soldiers often wore distinct and colorful uniforms, partially to make sure they wouldn't get shanked on the battlefield by their own troops. But when the stabby fighting slowly transitioned into the shooty fighting, armies realized that troops blending into the background were easier to miss. So during World War I, several countries started experimenting with this newfangled strategy called ca-mou-flage. For the U.S., that effort was led by a few dozen ladies sitting in a New York park pretending to be shrubbery.
Near the end of the war, many of the men in camouflage units were sent to the front never to be seen again -- again. In 1918, the U.S. Army created the Women's Reserve Camouflage Corps to pick up the slack. The branch only allowed artists, ranging from sculptors to cartoonists, to enlist. Their mission at first was to create full-body "observation suits" that wouldn't look out of place in a Bob Ross painting. All the women had to do to serve their country was enlist and pay $18 for tuition and $25 for the uniform.
To fully understand their work, the reserves were given the same weekly lessons in modern warfare and battlefield tactics as their male counterparts. However, two days per week were reserved as "field days," the field in question being a public park a few blocks away from their headquarters. At Van Cortlandt Park, these camoufleurs would not only sketch and map out their surroundings, but also test their designs on unwitting picnickers. As one reporter wrote: "I stumbled over a hump of grass, which squealed when I stepped on it, and rose before me." Only the police were notified of these lady rock formations stalking around in their park. Not that warning them helped, because, as one eagle-eyed copper noted, "ye can't see thim till they move."
But invisibility wasn't the only feather in their cap. "We are going to do every sort of camouflage work that they will allow us to do, from painting a battleship to making a fake tree," said one azalea bush. Soon, they were called upon to do just that. After a British zoologist observed that gray warships were easy to spot in the water, he suggested that instead they paint these ships in bright colors and strange patterns to "confuse" the enemy. Makes sense. Has there ever been a British zoologist who wasn't eccentric? The Women's Reserve Camouflage Corps was tasked with applying this "dazzle camouflage," which they did by painting warships in the middle of Union Square.
1,250 warships were painted, and to the surprise of everyone but one zoologist and 40-odd invisible women, the dazzle camouflage worked. Out of the 96 warships sunk by U-boats between the program's beginning and the end of the war, only 18 of them had been bedazzled. So here's to the overlooked mistresses of camouflage. Too often does their work go unrecognized.
Do you dream of joining the Navy? To serve your country from the bow of a mighty ship? To climb the mast, sit in the crow's nest, and gaze upon the seas from up high? What's that you say? An artillery commission? In the desert? Fear not, with this officer's ladder, you don't have to be in the Navy to fulfill your desire of climbing up someone's limber pole.
Before GPS coordinates or even portable phones, it was vital for artillery units to be able to have a clear view of whatever piece of land they were supposed to turn into a crater. But it wasn't always easy for officers to find higher ground to survey the battlefield. This was especially a problem when the British fought the Ottoman Empire during World War I, as the Mesopotamian flatlands were decidedly light on trees, hills, and whatever else stops us from just peeking into a neighboring continent.
Fortunately for the Royal Artillery field batteries, the answer was inside of them all along. In the artillery, we mean -- their limber to be specific. A limber is a type of carriage that was used to transport cannons. It possesses two wheels and a long pole used to hitch artillery to horses or vehicles, turning them into the second most dangerous caravans next to mobile meth labs. When the cannons have been deployed, the limber pole just lies there like a useless appendage. With a few small modifications, mostly adding rungs, the limber pole could be erected upwards and give the artillery commander a most splintery piggyback ride.
Unlike some of the other contraptions in this article, evolutions in the limber pole ladder did have the safety of the operator in mind -- probably because those operators tended to be on a first-name basis with Field Marshal Haig. Later iterations of the ladder were equipped with a bulletproof shield, a seat, and steadying cables that allowed the officer to sit comfortably tens of feet in the air and a thousand yards away from the trenches. So the safest place in World War I wasn't on ground level after all. Unfortunately, almost everyone had gone the wrong way.
Awkwardly charging across a beach toward dozens of machine gun nests is nobody's idea of a plan A, so in the months leading up to D-Day, the Allies tried desperately to think up new weapons to even the odds for their soldiers. Right before the landings, the British tried one last hail-mary with the Panjandrum, a massive Catherine wheel of death to let loose on the German barricades. What better way for the Americans to liberate Europe than by weaponizing the 4th Of July?
The Great Panjandrum, invented by Lt. Colonel Charles Robert Finch-Noyes at the Directorate Of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (British enough for ya?), was a couple of 10-foot-high steel wheels with 70 rockets strapped to its felloes. It was designed to be launched from the water towards the Atlantic wall at 60 miles per hour, hit it, explode, and leave a crater so big tanks could just roll through. That, of course, did not happen; otherwise WWII movies would be a lot shorter. Now, we've talked about the runaway disaster that was the Panjandrum before, but back then only a few grainy black-and-white photos were available. And this is the kind of thing that really needs to be seen to be believed:
The spinning ball of death made its debut at the seaside village of Westward Ho!. (Not a typo). Westward Ho! was not only a holiday resort masquerading as a seaside village, but it was also the testing grounds of several of the military's least conventional weapons. On the beach. The public beach. It did not go well. Who knew that bumpy mounds of sand would make it hard for a runaway rocket ring to keep a straight line? During the first secret test, witnessed by hundreds of beach bums, it nearly killed the cameraman capturing the catastrophe.
In a subsequent attempt, they tried to steer the Panjandrum with steel cables -- so naturally the steel cables snapped and almost decapitated one of the operators.
A final demonstration took place with the highest echelons of the military brass present. For extra safety, they had added a third wheel, because if there's anything that makes an occasion go more smoothly, it's a third wheel. It didn't work, of course, and in the process the rocket-propelled devil anus nearly ran over an officers' dog.
The project was shelved and D-Day commenced without a light show. However, for the 65th anniversary of the landing, a smaller version of the Panjandrum fitted with fireworks was launched on the beach. This time, it did go in a straight line, but only for about 50 feet before fizzling out. Still, if at first you don't succeed, try again in 65 years when YouTube can make it go viral.
New Line Cinema
When he's not pretending to be a small crabapple tree in your local park, Cedric Voets can be found gibbering like an idiot on Twitter.
For other times war looked like it was out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, check out 5 Advanced Weapons Clearly Invented by a 6-Year-Old and 5 Military Weapons Taken Straight Out Of Cartoon.
Follow us on Facebook, and we'll follow you everywhere.