Ever lain awake at night worrying? Lucy, a Royal Parks in the First World War research volunteer, found that H G Wells, author of The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, put his sleepless nights to good use:
I was lying snug in bed one night and I could not sleep. My window was open and the rain was pouring down outside and suddenly in an imaginative flash I saw the communication trenches swamped and swimming in mud and a miserable procession of overloaded Tommies struggling up to the front line along the wet planks. Some stumbled and fell. I knew men were often drowned in this dismal pilgrimage and that everyone who got to the front line arrived nearly worn out and smothered in mud. Moreover the utmost supplies these men could carry were insufficient.
Suddenly I saw that this was an entirely avoidable strain. I tumbled out of bed and spent the rest of the night planning a mobile telepherage system. My idea was to run forward a set of T-shaped poles with an erector wire, so that they could be all pulled up for use or allowed to lie flat and that two tractor wires could then work on the arms of the T. Power could be supplied by a motor lorry at the base of this line.
Some people have their best ideas in the shower but for writer HG Wells, one of his came while he was in bed. Or that is at least how he recollected the origin of his idea for aerial transportation....
Wells’ idea was in relation to a very real and very deadly problem that was facing the British army in 1917 – how to get vital supplies across the 8 miles of damaged land and trenches to reach the frontline without huge amounts of casualties of either men or horses.
The idea of an aerial ropeway was not a new one in itself (although Wells’ claim appears that he may have thought it was) but it was one that hadn’t been tried out during the First World War. And the suggestion was well received by the Minister of Munitions, a certain Winston Churchill when Wells put it to him shortly afterwards.
Either enthused by Wells’ passion or just out of other viable options, Churchill instructed the Royal Engineers’ Trench Warfare Department, led by Captain Leeming, to develop and test experimental aerial ropeways immediately.
Leeming and his team erected three different prototypes, testing them at Richmond Park where there was a 150-acre bombing and experimental ground at their disposal. A mere three months later, in November 1917, a report was published recommending the third type; a cross framed wooden pylon and rope affair.
There is no record of whether this device was actually used in any great number. There is a record of an order for 50 miles of ropeway placed in November 1917 but it likely that the cessation of hostilities happened before the system could be properly implemented on the front line. So whether this would have had the impact on the war effort that Wells thought it would is debatable but it certainly gave him the opportunity (one he took as frequently as he could) of boasting about his inventions.
Want to see the aerial ropeway in action? Come to our free Richmond Park Open Day with a WW1 twist!