This Week in World War I: October 17, 1914

The cover wrap of the issue has a painting of an armored car, charging into—surely not running away from!—some battle, gun blazing. There’s a boisterous quality to the image: it looks like some fictional illustration from the “Boy’s Own Guide...” to derring-do in the Great War.

Armored cars were used in the opening weeks of the war, it is true. But those versions were civilian or military motor-cars with steel plates bolted on here and there and perhaps a machine gun added—all very ad hoc contraptions.

There is no caption to this image, but surprisingly it turns out this armored car actually existed: it is an Austro-Daimler model 1904; it has been described as the first armored car with a rotating turret. It wasn’t particularly battle-worthy, being underpowered, top-heavy and not robust enough for work on any but well-maintained roads. And according to Patrick Keenan at warwheels.net, it is likely that there was only one test model and it was not used past 1906. But in October 1914 there was an absence of detailed information from the Front, and although the editors of Scientific American did indeed base this illustration on solid technical information—very likely gleaned from the March 1906 article we did on armored cars—the probability is pretty close to zero that this particular armored car ever went into battle, gun blazing or not.

And ironically, our lead editorial complains about just exactly this kind of “technical absurdity”:

“Technical Fallacies of the Present War:

The daily press is complaining of the severe censorship exercised over news from the seat of war; nevertheless, it would be better, in some respects, for the public if the censor's blue pencil were used even more freely than it is. We refer to the sensational and misleading technical absurdities which from time to time are passed by the censor and permitted to go broadcast over the world for the confusion and bewilderment of the public, which is weary of rumors and asks only for the facts. If it is the duty of the censor to eliminate any statement which might be of value to the enemy, surely it is his duty, also, to cut out of the dispatches exaggerated statements as to the nature and destructive effect of the weapons which are employed by the combatants.”

To see a full archive of our coverage of World War I—military, economic, social, technological—view our archive package, Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi.