Bringing Sci-Fi to Life: The Walking War Machines of ARPA and G.E.

Today’s post is by Jeff Simon who interned with the Textual Processing Department at the National Archives in College Park, MD in the summer of 2019

A walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of thunder . . .

So wrote H. G. Wells of the infamous Martian tripods in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds. By anthropomorphizing the Martian fighting machines while maintaining their alien nature, Wells ensured that the tripods were eerie and threatening enough to live in his audiences’ memory for decades to come. Though War of the Worlds is a renowned, genre-bending work of fiction, there came a time when the United States Department of Defense, in cooperation with the General Electric Company (G.E.), sought to make that fiction a reality.

The efforts of the Department of Defense’ Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) and the United States Army to create an all-terrain vehicle using “legs” instead of wheels or tracks is documented in the series Quadruped Studies Project Files, 1960-1968 (NAID 18252894), from Record Group 330: Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. While processing these records, I discovered that G.E. and various departments of the U.S. Army had been researching the possibility of a walking truck since at least 1960 (1). In 1965, G.E. submitted a technical proposal to the Army for the creation of an ambulating quadruped transporter (AQT), in layman’s terms, a four-legged transportation vehicle (2). 

schematic of quadruped

On 24 February, 1966, the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Center contracted with the G.E. Ordnance Department for the “research, design, development, construction, and check-out testing of a full scale four-legged walking machine,” (3). 

photograph of a man in a quadruped machine
Quadruped-Skeleton-Balance-Testing

Thus, science fiction began to become a reality. As it turns out, the AQT was not the only Department of Defense science fiction-inspired project. For instance, the Quadruped Studies Project Files also contain concept art for a walking, self-destructing grenade and sketches of small observation robots, as well as an AQT that could extend its legs to walk above shallow rivers and bodies of water.

In 1969, G.E.’s AQT was finally realized and successfully tested(4). The accomplishment was lauded as innovative and revolutionary by both the Army and the engineering community. However, as Department of Defense officials began examining and testing the AQT for themselves, they found several technical flaws, mostly concerning the interface between man and machine. 

photograph of man, Ralph S. Mosher, looking at a quadruped model.
G.E. Project Engineer Ralph S. Mosher examining Quadruped Model

After exchanges between the Army, G.E., and ARPA, the project was ultimately cancelled due to lack of funding and impracticality. However, one has only to look to the 1980 movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to see the relationship between science fiction and scientific research to recognize the surviving creative influence of the ambulating quadruped transporter.


Footnotes:

All material cited and images are from the series Quadruped Studies Project Files, 1960 – 1968 (NAID 18252894). Department of Defense. Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering. Advanced Research Projects Agency. Advanced Engineering Office. Record Group 330, Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

(1) Technical Report from Land Locomotion Laboratory, Research Division, Research and Engineering Division “The Mechanics of Walking Vehicle,” 1960, Box 1.

(2) Project Proposal from General Electric Company, Defense Electronics Division, Ordnance Department “Development of an Ambulating Quadruped Transporter,” 1965, Box 2.

(3) Progress Report from General Electric Company, Defense Electronics Division, Ordnance Department “Development of an Ambulating Quadruped Transporter: First Progress Report,” 1966, Box 1.

(4) News Release No. 14-506 from United States Army Tank-Automotive Command Headquarters, 1969, Box 4, Folder 1.

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