Major Walter Gordon Wilson, mechanical engineer, inventor and member of the British Royal Naval Air Service, is born in Blackrock, County Dublin, on April 21, 1874. He is credited by the 1919 Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors as the co-inventor of the tank, along with Sir William Tritton.
Wilson is a naval cadet on HMS Britannia. In 1894 he entered King’s College, Cambridge, where he studies the mechanical sciences tripos, graduating with a first-class degree, B.A., in 1897. He acts as ‘mechanic’ for the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls on several occasions while they are undergraduates in Cambridge.
Interested in powered flight, Wilson collaborates with Percy Sinclair Pilcher and the Hon. Adrian Verney-Cave to attempt to make an aero-engine from 1898. The engine is a flat-twin air-cooled and weighs only 40 lbs., but shortly before a demonstration flight planned for September 30, 1899 it suffers a crankshaft failure. Unwilling to let down his backers, Pilcher opts to demonstrate a glider, which crashes and he is fatally injured. The shock of Pilcher’s death ends Wilson’s plans for aero-engines.
Following Pilcher’s death, Wilson switches to building the Wilson–Pilcher motor car, which is launched in 1900. This car is quite remarkable in that it is available with either flat-four or flat-six engines, which are very well balanced, and with a low centre of gravity making good stability. Each water cooled cylinder is separate and identical for either engine. Cylinders are slightly offset with separate crankpins, and the crankshaft has intermediate bearings between each pair of cylinders.
The gearbox of the car is also novel, having dual epicyclic gears and being bolted directly to the engine. This allows four speeds, with direct drive in top gear. All the gears are helical, and enclosed in an oil bath, making for very silent transmission. Reverse gear is built into the rear axle, as is the foot operated brake drum, all of which are housed in a substantial aluminium casing.
After marrying in 1904 Wilson joins Armstrong Whitworth who takes over production of the Wilson-Pilcher car. From 1908 to 1914 he works with J & E Hall of Dartford designing the Hallford lorry which sees extensive service with the army during World War I.
The sole known surviving Wilson-Pilcher car is a four-cylinder version that is retained by the Amstrong Whitworth factory and after restoration in the 1940s is presented to W.G. Wilson in the 1950s. It stays in the Wilson family until 2012 when it is sold at auction to a private collector.
With the outbreak of World War I, Wilson rejoins the navy and the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, which protects the Royal Naval Air Service in France. When the Admiralty begins investigating armoured fighting vehicles under the Landship Committee in 1915, 20 Squadron is assigned to it and Wilson is placed in charge of the experiments. He works with the agricultural engineer William Tritton resulting in the first British tank called “Little Willie.” At Wilson’s suggestion the tracks are extended right round the vehicle. This second design becomes the prototype for the Mark I tank.
Designing several of the early British tanks, Wilson incorporates epicyclic gearing which is 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 provides a new steering design which gives a larger turning radius at higher speeds.
Wilson transfers to the British Army in 1916, becoming a Major in the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. He is mentioned twice in dispatches and is appointed Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1917.
In 1928, Wilson invents a self-changing gearbox, and forms Improved Gears Ltd. with John Davenport Siddeley to develop the design commercially. Improved Gears later becomes Self-Changing Gears. The self-changing gearboxes are available on most subsequent Armstrong Siddeley automobiles, manufactured up to 1960, as well as on Daimler, Lanchester, Talbot, ERA, AC, Invicta and Riley automobiles as well as buses, railcars and marine launches.