Home > Uncategorized > A brief history of tripods

A brief history of tripods

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

When H G Wells read about the Black War, he found himself thinking “Jesus fuck! What if I wrote a book where aliens came and invaded the British Empire right in its stupid fucking face, and were just genocidal assholes just like the British Empire in Tasmania? What then?”

So he did. And he made the British Martian invaders as disgusting and evil and alien and just wrong as he could. And late one night, hopped up on cheap Turkish tobacco, he had an epiphany: “nothing in nature has three legs, does it? These fuckers gonna be three-legged. Then you’ll know how bad they are.”

The next morning he realised why nothing in nature has three legs: because as soon as it tried to move, it would fall over. So he wrote that instead of walking his three-legged monsters rolled like “a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground.”

The reading, drawing and movie-making public totally agreed with him about the awesomeness of alien invasions and the awesome alienosity of three legged fighting machines. “Fuck yeah, tripods!” they said, all around the world. Even, curiously, in Woking, which he wrote about being flattened  and destroyed first and most thoroughly.


But there was less enthusiasm for the “bowling along” rationalization and even less for remembering the whole Tasmanian genocide thing. Which just goes to show that gonzo-imaginative beats sensible, meaningful, and important every time, when it comes to grabbing the public’s excitement glands.

So why am I blogging this, when you can get perfectly good histories of Wellsian Tripods from Wikipedia or the War of the Worlds Wiki? I’ll get to that.

I reckon the next really important moment in Tripod development was Mike Trim’s iconic 1978 painting:


which you probably know from Jeff Wayne’s Progopera. By the time Trim did this, there had already been 80+ years of tripod drawing:

Correa-Martians_vs._Thunder_ChildWar-of-the-worlds-tripodL.45/3317, p.75

but these hapless tin-men weren’t exactly going to (ahem) set the world on fire. Aside from a tendency toward big heads and spindly legs there wasn’t much consensus about what a Martian tripod should look like – people knew they wanted tripods but they didn’t agree on exactly what that meant.
(amazing gallery of book covers – from which extracts below;)

00030009 0012034200150018

until two versions pretty much killed all the others. Trim’s, which was really a polished up take on this 1950s effort:


and a beetle-shell, overhanging eaves look that Spielberg would adopt mostly just to avoid agreeing that Trim totally nailed it (lots more views here and here)


that probably derives ultimately from a comic book (the original of which I haven’t tracked down):



So what’s so great about Trim’s painting?

1: it’s a spider. A daddy long legs like you find in the shower.
2: it has two glowing eyes. Other pictures make it clear that those are supposed to be compound bug-type eyes but  here they make a recognisable, almost-human face.
And 3: that face is pure scorn. Trim’s tripod threatens without having to move because it melts the Thunderchild’s valiant heart with pure contempt. That’s not just the haughty angle of the head, it’s also the not bothering to dodge pose of the legs and most of all the I shot you right where I wanted to angle of the heat ray. Compare this Spanish hatchet job, where they messed with the painting to fit a narrow format:


Here the face is looking down its murderous nose at nobody. The ship isn’t going to hit it anyway so there’s no question of dodging. In fact maybe it just did dodge, like a bullfighter, and is dropping the rejón de muerte as the Torpedo Ram blunders past. It’s contemptuous, but not idly so.

And so just how iconic is Trim’s painting? How much does it dominate the imaginative landscape? Ahem:

WOTW%2009charge_of_the_thunder_child_by_thebigemp3-d4ke6j8thunderchild_battle_by_nikedorchain-d5rkjvdScreen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.52.22 AMScreen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.51.55 AMTHUNDER_CHILD__s_sacrifice_by_gazzatrekScreen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.49.42 AMtchild2-2thunderchildwar_of_the_worlds___thunder_child_vs__martian_2_by_wootinator-d66wexbcollectorcome_on__thunderchild_by_metamarc-d3fr5gh Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.51.45 AM

OK. But the real reason I went off down this rabbit-hole is that I saw a godawful bit of lazy 3D and I had to share it in the right context.

See, the confrontation of the Thunderchild and the tripod is one of the big scenes in the book. It’s the definitive moment when the reader understands that the British Empire – and therefore humanity – is completely screwed. The Thunderchild is not the Empire’s biggest ship, but it is its most spitefully violent. It is an outstandingly stupid idea realized as expensively as possible – a ship made to destroy things utterly, no matter how Pyrrhic the victory. It’s a fucking giant steam engine made to ram things with torpedos. And it gets one good strike on a spindly leg before the Martians wise up and melt it. So you’d want that scene to be pretty dramatic, right? Something like this:


only there the drama rather gets in the way of the clarity of what exactly is going on.

Trim’s painting gives you drama, futility, scorn, tragedy and clarity in one neatly pointed triangular composition.

And then we come to this flabby bit of 3D rendering, which gives you absolutely none of that, plus a boring alien cannon doohickey:


Yes, it’s sticking a tentacle up in the air creating tension with the edge of the frame. The horizon line is off communicating a loss of control. And like Trim’s picture we see the point of the Thunderchild’s sacrifice – the steamer full of civilians escaping to France.

But Ugh. Zero character, zero tension. It could be a picture about air pollution. In spite of the fact that the Thunderchild is clearly just about to run that sucker down on pure momentum. It’s… just…

Here, have some alterna-tripods as a palette cleanser:

TripodsontheThames league_of_extraordinary_gentlemen_tripod_x triPod deanmartian02

lynch6 Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.51.02 AM


Still here? This Goliath thing looks like it could be fun. And look, tripod minis! The old Tin Man rides again! Roger Dean’s version as a model. And finally Fimm McCool’s Orkshop has an actually fairly original design!



I could use that.

  1. Joe
    October 25, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    The head on the 50’s Spanish-language comic book reminds me of the heads I’ve seen drawn for Niven’s Puppeteers, which also happen to have three legs. The big difference is that puppeteers have two heads. I wonder if Niven was ripping someone off?

    You know, three legs aren’t necessarily any worse than two, or two and a substantial tail. I guess it’s a matter of proportion for the legs and their actual articulation. I’m again probably forced here while thinking about Puppeteers, where I think the middle leg is articulated differently. Just happen to be reading a lot of Niven right now. Never mind me. 🙂

    By the way, you did a really nice job here of collecting photographs. I particularly like the Mars lander mashup. 🙂

  2. October 26, 2013 at 2:22 am

    Great post! I just added it to the resources section of A Warlords Index to Mars

  3. October 28, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    Good stuff, Richard!

  4. October 29, 2013 at 12:12 am

    The “iconic” Matrian tripod, in my mind, is the one that graced the cover of the paperback I bought at K-Mart when I was 12 (very late 1970s). It looked, oddly enough, very similar to the ones in the Spielberg movie.

    • richardjohnguy
      October 29, 2013 at 11:22 am

      I think the Spielberg tripod might actually be part of a whole other evolutionary line starting from Alvim Corréa’s sombrero-sporting Fighting Machine, from his illustrations to the 1906 Belgian edition (featured above as the ones that wouldn’t set the world on fire).

      I should really take a second look at those. Oddly the only other Alvim Corréa works I can find on a quick search are erotica.

  5. October 29, 2013 at 3:43 am

    That Spanish Classics Illustrated Cover is actually by legendary comics artist Gil Kane (inked by Dave Cockrum), from Marvel Comics’ adaptation of the War of the Worlds – Classic Comics Vol. 1 #14 (1976) to be exact.


  6. November 22, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Skipping back around, I realize you and HGW just resolved the riddle of the sphinx here. We have met the tripods and they walk like us at night.

  7. November 22, 2013 at 8:52 pm

  8. jan
    August 31, 2016 at 7:18 am

    any tripod designs true to wells book must be bright aluminum, carry the heat ray with a tentacle held high, include the black smoke tube, have a large head with a cupola where the martian is visible. The joints of the legs are described as a series of discs spaced apart electromagnetically which vent vapor when operating, and have a fluid articulation. the locomotion is rotary, with only one foot on the ground when moving at speeds around one hundred kilometers per hour. the martians tentacles are visible extending outside the cupola, and there is a basket at the rear of the body for cargo. in addition there are indications that a shield may be incorporated in the design which the martians used to cover themselves when moving from the first cylinder to the second where the first tripod appears.

    • Richard Grenville
      May 12, 2017 at 2:32 pm

      sorry this reply is coming so late – I only now got the comment notification from WordPress!
      Those electromagnetic legs are crazy, aren’t they? It’s a cool idea but it kind of works directly against the spidery alien-ness of making the thing a tripod – also it makes the Thuderchild ram scene surreal, if what actually happens is a disc flies out of a magnetic field (to say nothing of what the implications are for the Thunderchild’s steel hull). I would like to see a really faithful rendition of Wells’s tripod but I understand why artists have been loath to tackle it.

  9. jan
    August 31, 2016 at 7:28 am

    I must say that the third to last image is my favorite, there is a short cgi video on youtube of this fighting machine, Very well done.

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