John Ptak recently posted an interesting 1916 cover from Illustrated World magazine showing the futuristic "Electric Titan" robot fighter. Though rarely in humanoid robot form, the multi-soldier death machine of tomorrow was a surprisingly common idea during World War I. Why so outlandish? Because the military predictions of the time were rarely made by the actual military.
As Joe Corn and Brian Horrigan note in their 1984 book Yesterday's Tomorrows (what I often refer to as the retro-futurist's bible) it wasn't until after World War II that so-called professionals got into the prognostication game when it came to future weapons. During the first World War, military predictions were almost the exclusive domain of amateurs. The military establishment of WWI, naturally conservative in just about every regard, didn't dare guess what weapons were in store down the line. Naturally, the Electric Titan — "a marvel of steel plates, knuckles and cog wheels" — was the idea of an amateur: one Vern Pieper of Alton, Illinois.
From Yesterday's Tomorrows:
Not until after World War II, when the benefits of sustained research and development in producing powerful new weapons became clear, did members of the armed services, in league with scientists and engineers in universities and the defense industry, come to monopolize the crystal ball through which tomorrow's weapons are glimpsed.
With the rise of the machine gun and terrible chemical offensives like the use of mustard gas, it's perhaps understandable why making predictions about future mechanization of killing was seen as uncouth to many in the military. But that certainly didn't stop the pulps from imagining the gyro-electric destroyers and large-wheeled trench weapons of tomorrow.
The image above comes from the February 1918 issue of Electrical Experimenter showing the seemingly invincible gyro-electric destroyer of the future. Almost every issue of Electrical Experimenter (published by Hugo Gernsback) during WWI featured ideas for the battles of tomorrow. But knowing that these predictions were coming from the same men in Manhattan who would establish the modern sci-fi magazine (rather than military strategists) helps put them into a context too often ignored by those of us here in the 21st century.
Below we have the February 1917 issue of Electrical Experimenter, showing the trench destroyer of tomorrow. This horrific weapon of tomorrow rolls over the enemy burrowed inside their trench and gives no escape. Again, a perfectly reasonable idea for the pulp authors and illustrators of the late 1910s who had never seen the front lines — a perfectly implausible (and chilling) idea for the fighting men of the day.
Then again, it's hard to argue against the mental image of Lord Grantham piloting a Ferris Wheel of Doom.