Salute to the big tracks

by Andy Bryenton

Our local contractors would be stuck without tracked machines, able to carry heavy hydraulic gear over all sorts of terrain to tackle the biggest demolition, earthmoving and building tasks. Moreover, where did the ubiquitous ‘caterpillar track’ come from?

November 24, 1904. A muddy islet in the middle of the San Joaquin River Delta in California. Other American families were getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner. However, out amid the reeds, Benjamin Holt was unwilling to take a break from his new project. Traction engines of the day sunk into the soggy soil of this part of the country. His plan: replace the plank roads, which were used to support the iron monsters. He chose to chain together a series of redwood slats between the wheels, making an ‘endless belt’. To say that it worked well is an understatement. By 1911, Holt had found a name for his machine, based on a photographer’s observation that it crawled over all-terrain like a caterpillar. By 1925, Holt’s company had merged with that of his biggest rival in the manufacture of heavy equipment, CL Best to form the Caterpillar company. Meanwhile, the first world war had provided the toughest test of mud, wire and rough terrain ever faced by vehicles. Those wooden slats had evolved into the ‘endless road land-ship’ concept, developed by the British and soon to be called the tank. There have been some well-known Caterpillars down the years. From the D2s, deployed both here and to Australia in the 1930s, to the machines that paved airfields across the Pacific Islands to help win the second world war for the Allies. In the post-war boom, Caterpillars built America’s freeways and interstates, and the Caterpillar logo became familiar overseas as well.

Today, the name has become synonymous with the invention, in the same way, brand names like Sellotape and Levis have come to define a whole product range.

Caterpillar tracks are the common name given to the treads that make all manner of big machines able to traverse boggy, rough or broken ground. It all began on a Thanksgiving day in 1904, but there are operators who thank Mr Holt every time they turn the key in the morning.