Monthly Archives: March 2015

Russia’s Three-Wheeled Death Machine: The Tsar Tank

Tsar_tankWarfare, for better or worse, is strong motivation for innovation. After all, if the other guy is trying to find unique ways to kill you, it’s in your own best interest to find new ways to kill him as well. The innovations in warfare might eventually filter down to the general public, spurring the economy and laying the foundation for further technological development. That, or they come to what amounts to an evolutionary dead end, and wind up being historical head scratchers, things what students of history read about and wonder: “what were they thinking?”

Several such creations came out of World War I, which served as a laboratory in which modern warfare was born. Military aviation, weapons of mass destruction, and mechanized warfare were all utilized for the first time on a large scale during the four year conflict, which killed upwards of 20 million people. The most infamous aspect of the war was the trench warfare that characterized the western theater. The Allies and the Central powers dug in only yards from one another, so entrenched that neither side could dislodge the other. Needing a weapon that could survive the deadly machine gun fire that caused so much carnage during infantry attacks, the British designed what came to be known as the tank, which could cross the trenches and provide cover to attacking infantry.

Once the British tanks made their first appearance on the battlefield, all sides scrambled to make their own version of the new weapon. The Russians were no exception, and their version of the tank was a massive contraption, in keeping with the Russian predilection toward building things on a grand scale. They dubbed their experimental tank the Tsar Tank, the king of all tanks.


Netopyr–“the Bat”

The Tsar tank was a huge departure from tank design in the West. British and French tanks utilized tracks, and the French introduced the concept of a turret. The Russian’s contribution to tank design, attributed to Nikolai Lebedenko and Alexander Mikulin, introduced the idea of using two cartoonishly large wheels, resembling 19th century bicycle wheels, for propulsion. These were balanced in the back by a large roller, giving the Tsar Tank the appearance of a reverse tricycle. A scale model of the vehicle, which impressed Tsar Nicholas III with its ability to climb a stack of books, was dubbed Netopyr (“the Bat”) due to the fact that holding the contraption by its third wheel made it resemble a hanging bat.

Whatever it was called, the Tsar Tank was a monstrous vehicle. The front wheels were 27 feet in diameter, with the rear wheel only 5 feet in diameter. The monstrous front wheels were powered by two 250 hp Sunbeam engines, which were supposed to propel the machine to a top speed of about 11mph. Weighing in at sixty tons, the monstrous machine was armed with a main turret situated on top of the machine, limiting its firing arch to the space between the two wheels. Cannons were added on the sides as well, also with limited firing arcs. Finally, there was a planned machine gun emplacement on the bottom of the crew cabin, but it is unclear if this feature was actually implemented.

Theoretically, the beastly machine would be able to plow over enemy trenches and fortifications, blasting a path for the infantry. It would likely be accompanied by armored cars and other light vehicles who would protect its vulnerable wheels and underside.  However, such tactical considerations remained theoretical, as testing soon made the hulking system’s Achilles Heel painfully apparent.


Stuck in the mud

The Russian Army began testing the Tsar Tank in 1915, in a forest not far from Moscow. Initially, it seemed they had a winner on their hands. While the beast could only reach about half its advertised top speed, it was able to traverse rugged terrain as designed. The fatal flaw came when the contraption came to a muddy spot in the testing ground.

The three wheel design concentrated much of its weight onto the back roller, which promptly became stuck in the mud. Despite the best efforts of the Russian Army, the Tsar Tank became hopelessly mired in the soft soil. It was abandoned on site, where it remained until 1923, when it was pulled apart for scrap. Russia would learn from its mistakes, and went on to design the T-34, arguably the best battle tank of WW2.



Hunt, David. “World War 1 History: The Russian Tsar Tank—The Largest, Weirdest Tank Ever Built.” November 23, 2014. Hubpages. March 22, 2015.


“Netopyr Tsar Tank.” g1886 Technology. Accessed March 22, 2015.


“Tsar Tank (Lebedenko Tank/Netopyr) Mobile Weapons Platform (1915)” December 13, 2014. Military Factory. March 22, 2014.




Project Pigeon–B.F. Skinner and the Bird-Based Guidance System

"Rock Pigeon Columba livia" by Muhammad Mahdi Karim FacebookThe making of this document was supported by Wikimedia CH. (Submit your project!)For all the files concerned, please see the category Supported by Wikimedia CH.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | Bahasa Melayu | Nederlands | rumantsch | +/− - Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Rock Pigeon Columba livia” by Muhammad Mahdi Karim FacebookThe making of this document was supported by Wikimedia CH. (Submit your project!)For all the files concerned, please see the category Supported by Wikimedia CH.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | Bahasa Melayu | Nederlands | rumantsch | +/− – Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons –

Animals have been a part of warfare for as long as humans have fought wars, so it is no surprise that animal-based weapons systems are a recurring theme on this blog. While a veritable zoos worth of animals have taken place in human conflicts over the centuries, the modern tendency is to use animals not as weapons in themselves but as delivery systems or to mount espionage devices.

For example, in WW2 the US Army tested a bat-based delivery system for incendiary bombs. The idea was that bats released over Japanese cities would go to roost within the wooden structures common to the country. Then when the incendiary devices detonated, the resulting firestorm would easily wipe out vast swaths of Japanese cities with little or no risk to American air crews. The concept was eventually scrapped, as the delivery systems for the bats never worked quite right and more conventional methods of destruction had already wreaked full scale slaughter on Japan anyway.

Another animal based weapons system came out of World War 2 and America’s ongoing effort to use her technological superiority to defeat her enemies and minimize casualties. The man who proposed the system was none other than B.F. Skinner, the psychologist famous for his work with operant conditioning, the idea that reinforcement and punishment can modify behavior. He submitted the idea that the humble pigeon, one of his favorite test subjects, could be trained to accurately deliver explosive payloads. In effect, Skinner wanted to design a bird based bomb guidance system. And the US military (and General Mills) though the idea was just crazy enough to work.


The Pelican

Operant conditioning as practiced by B.F. Skinner allowed him to mold animal’s behavior using rewards and punishments. The system worked typically by rewarding some random behavior–say, pecking a screen–with food every time it occurred. Over time, the animal would perform the rewarded behavior intentionally in order to get the food, and then the response would become almost automatic.

This simple premise was what lay behind Skinner’s bird based guidance system. He taught his pigeons to peck a dot on a glass screen. As long as the dot was kept centered, the pigeon would get its reward. Initially, Skinner bought 64 pigeons–40 normal and 24 homing pigeons–from a pet shop to test his idea. All of the birds earned their wings, as it were.

While the idea may seem preposterous today, it was taken at least somewhat seriously by the military, who gave the psychologist $25,000 to develop his research. The interest in the project mostly centered around the fact that then primitive electronic guidance systems could be easily jammed by enemy interference, while a pigeon encased in a warhead would suffer no ill effects from jamming efforts. What resulted was a snub-nosed craft called “The Pelican.” Capable of carrying 500lbs of explosives, the craft housed three pigeons, each with their own screen to peck. The three working together would compensate for any errors. An electroconductive coating on the glass would translate the pecks into electrical signals that would guide the craft.

Despite initial success with the project, the military could not seem to overcome the inherent ridiculousness of using pigeons as kamikazes, and pulled the project’s funding in 1944, citing that it could be better used on more promising projects.


Project Orcon

However, four years later, the Navy took up Skinner’s research with renewed interest. The Cold War was in its infancy, and the influx of German rocket technology after WW2 was changing how strategists saw the future of warfare. Missiles could potentially be used to bombard enemy targets with conventional or nuclear explosives from vast distances, much like how the Nazis used their infamous V2 missiles to bombard London in WW2. For all their expertise, the Nazis never did find a very accurate guidance system, and again the guidance systems of the day could be easily jammed by enemy action.

Looking for an answer to this problem, the Navy turned back to the idea of using unjammable pigeons as guidance systems. Skinner worked with the Navy for five years to develop such a system, under the auspices of a program dubbed “Project Orcon” (“orcon meaning “organic control.) While the pigeons sported an impressive 55.3% accuracy, problems with using animal-based guidance systems soon became apparent. The pigeons “flew” their bombs based on sight, and while a pigeon’s eyesight is impressive, using simple optics limited the system to being used only during daylight and good weather. In addition, the pigeons could only see so far unaided.

By 1953, the writing was on the wall. The Navy scrapped the program in favor of electrical guidance systems, which had vastly improved since WW2. The electroconductive coating used to coat the screens the pigeons pecked would later be used in radar screens and other applications. While the US would call on animals to serve in other odd capacities as weapons of war, the humble pigeon’s venerable military career had ended.



“1940—Project Pigeon (1948—Project Orcon)–B.F. Skinner (American).” December 27, 2011.

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” September 17, 2013. US Army. March 5, 2015.

Lehman, Staci. “The Pigeon-Guided Missiles and Bat Bombs of World War II.” December 5, 2013. Gizmodo. March 5, 2015.