‘Lost’ tank blueprint saved for nation by The Tank Museum

Auctioneer Paul Laidlaw with the blueprints for the first ever tank.

The ‘lost’ blueprint for the world’s first tank has been secured for the nation by The Tank Museum in Dorset.

Thanks to the backing of Tim Allan, a former officer in the Royal Tank Regiment, the museum was able to win the auction.

The plans along with the patent specification for the Mark I tank were purchased for a hammer price of £14,600.

Laidlaw Auctioneers in Carlisle offered the historic items which came from a private vendor whose family had owned them for considerable time.

The 44ins by 28ins blueprint is dated May 1916, just four months before the Mark I tanks had their first outing during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme Offensive in World War One.

The blueprint for the first ever tank – now home at The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset.

The documents have been described as the ‘birth certificate’ for the tank, an invention that changed the nature of modern warfare.

The Mark I tank was designed and manufactured by agricultural machinery company William Foster & Co of Lincoln.

The patent document describes the tank as ‘transport vehicles propelled by an endless moving chain track’ and explained it was in the shape of a ‘lozenge.’

Auctioneer Paul Laidlaw with the patent documetn for the very first tank

It reads: “The object of the invention is a vehicle which is specially adapted for use…under such conditions, the ground to be traversed is exceedingly difficult owing to the presence of obstructions, such as trenches, parapets, shell holes, craters and so forth.

“The casing as seen in the side elevation, approximately in shape resembles a lozenge or diamond standing on its edge. The high end is the front, whilst the low end is the rear.

“The chain track or tracks extend entirely around the frame, so that the machine is arranged within the area enclosed by the track or tracks.”

The Tank Museum curator David Willey said: “We are obviously delighted to add this blueprint and draft patent document to our holdings of First World War Tank material.

David Willey, curator of The Tank Museum, with a Mark I tank.

“We already have the best collection of remaining First World War tanks and our archive has a substantial number of drawings and manuals along with photographs, war diaries and personal accounts.

“This blueprint is the only one known for a Mark I, so we would like to think we are the most appropriate place for these items.

“Bovington, where we are based, has been the home of the tank since 1916.

“This purchase was only made possible by the kind backing of Tim Allan and for this we are deeply grateful.”

Tim Allan CBE served as an officer in The Royal Tank Regiment, the oldest tank unit in the world.

The regiment still wears the First World War tank on its cap badge and is currently deployed in Estonia.

Tim said: “It’s a real privilege to be able to support the Tank Museum in their acquisition of this important piece of tank history.

“To me as Chair of the V&A in Dundee, I like to think we should show an example in our support to heritage whenever we can and I am particularly proud to be associated with the acquisition of something so close to my heart and own career.”

Auctioneer Paul Laidlaw, who regularly features on TV’s Bargain Hunt and Antiques Road Trip, said it was a ‘great result’ that the documents are in a museum.

He said: “Many auctioneers will go through their whole careers without handling an object that is so important it should not be in the hands of a collector.

“This should be accessible to everyone; it’s too good to be owned by an individual.

“This is our heritage or even world heritage and should be available for all to view.

“In 2018 Guy Martin made a TV documentary in which he tried to build a replica Mark I tank and he said then that no blueprints existed.

“So when I received a call describing these documents you could say I was stopped in my tracks.

“When I laid eyes on the blueprint its immediate visual impact far exceeded my expectations.

“It’s like seeing an X-ray of a mechanical leviathan and gives some insight into why these ‘land ships’ induced such shock and awe in the troops of 1916.”

After the prototype tanks ‘Little Willie’ and ‘Mother’, the Mark I was the first actual tank to go into production and see service in the First World War.

The first order was placed on 12 February 1916, and a second on 21 April. William Foster & Co of Lincoln, previously an agricultural machinery manufacturer, built the two prototypes and went on to build 37 ‘male’ Mark I tanks.

Detai of tThe blueprint for the first ever tank – now home at The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset.

Male tanks had the larger 6-pounder guns, female tanks just carried machine guns.

The Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon, and Finance Company, of Birmingham, built 113 tanks (38 ‘male’ and 75 ‘female’) for a grand total of 150.

The Tank Museum holds a similar but undated full-scale copy of the drawing from which this blueprint could have been made – taken from a glass negative.

The patent document is a draft of an attempt to patent the tank as a whole.

This draft was, as far as is known, never submitted to the Patent Office and if it was it was never accepted.

It contains considerable detail on issues such as how the steering tail was intended to operate and is an important document in understanding the design intentions of William Tritton and Walter Wilson and their conception of the tank.

David Willey, curator of The Tank Museum, with a Mark I tank.

A Mark I tank at The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset.