Page 1 of 15
The name "Caterpillar" brings to mind machines that are made mobile using revolving, oblong tracks, instead of wheels - often referred to as "crawler tractors." What follows is a brief history of the "Caterpillar" tractor and the companies that made it.
The "crawler" type of machine was developed for use on soft ground. The weight of the "crawler" machine is distributed over a much larger surface area of tracks - allowing the machine to traverse soft strata. A wheeled machine has very limited surface area over which to distribute its weight. In addition, farmers and ranchers in the American West found that the "crawler" tractor had better traction with the ground than wheeled tractors, and could pull more weight for a given horsepower. And the "crawler" tractor was far more stable on uneven or hilly ground, where farmers and ranchers grew wheat and other agricultural products.
The earliest documented creation of a "crawler" machine was in a patent awarded by the government of Great Britain in 1825 - the tracks replacing wheels on each side of a cart used on soft soils. A few years later, another Englishman used the ideas found in the first patent and applied "crawler" tracks to a thirty-ton steam tractor, but the experiment was a failure. In 1858, in California, another steam-powered crawler tractor was built and displayed at the State Fair, where it received an award. The inventor was also awarded a U.S. patent, but the inventor lacked financial resources to make the invention a success.
The next documented creation of a "crawler" machine was in the United States, when, in 1900, Alvin O. Lombard started building "crawler" tractors powered by steam boilers. Lombard's tractors were created to haul timber in the woods of Maine. In those days, logging operations were conducted in the winter, because it took fewer horses (less energy) to pull logs loaded on large snow sleds. The sleds were pulled on roads built of snow. The tracks where the sled runners traveled on the snow roads were finished with a topping of ice to reduce the friction or resistance between the heavy sled runners and the snow-road under them. Using sleds and iced snow roads allowed horses to pull much more weight than they could otherwise pull using wheeled trailers on dirt roads. Lombard sought to replace horses with steam power, increasing the amount of work that could be done and reducing the cost of accomplishing the work. The steam-powered crawler tractors could pull behind them many sleds filled with logs, reducing the cost of transportation. As the tractors were very heavy, crawler tracks were used to spread the weight of the steam tractor over a large surface, helping to reduce the adverse impact of the machine on the (relatively) soft snow roads.
Other places had similar problems with soft ground. One of those areas was the one-half million acre delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers south of Stockton, California. The land was very rich in nutrients, but very soft - almost too soft for horses, and certainly too soft to support heavy agricultural equipment on wheels. A manufacturer of agricultural machines, including large "combined harvesters" (harvesters that cut the grain, separated the grain from the chaff, discarded the chaff, threshed the grain to remove the outer hard shell, and poured the threshed gain into bags) and steam tractors, lived in this area. He was keenly aware of the need for equipment that could harvest the grains grown on the delta. His name was Benjamin Holt, and he was the president of a family-owned firm, The Holt Manufacturing Company of Stockton, California. Benjamin Holt owned a farm on similarly soft soils. At the time, steam tractors were widely used in the area for agricultural harvesting. In order to overcome the weight distribution problem on soft soils, the iron wheels on the tractors were extended in width horizontal to the ground, making for very wide tractors of nearly 50 feet. The wider the wheels, the less maneuverable the tractor became.