Caterpillar Tracks

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Weird, Weird World: EPIC.

A small British company put tracks on a tractor and changed agriculture—and war—forever.


In 1903 the British War Office offered £1,000 to the maker of a tractor that could haul 25 tons for 40 miles without stopping for fuel or water. The tiny agricultural manufacturer Hornsby & Sons (est. 1815) won with a tractor that went 58 miles. Chief engineer and manager David Roberts realized that if the British Army wanted to make full use of his 80-hp, 12-ton tractor, the machine could not get stuck in mud. By 1906 Roberts had come up with a novel chain track that he fitted onto the tractor. When British soldiers saw this rolling track in action, they dubbed the machine a “caterpillar.” Two years later, the War Office purchased four chain-track tractors to tow artillery pieces. Encouraged, Roberts worked to expand the caterpillar tractor’s working applications, fitting it with wooden wheels for desert travel and boosting its top speed to 25 mph.


Hornsby & Sons wanted to share their caterpillar tractor with not only the army but also the general public. They commissioned a film to advertise it (the first commercial ever filmed). [Ed. note: the only available copy of that film has German intertitles.]

(YouTube link)

Audiences at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in London attended the premiere on April 27, 1908, and were impressed by the new vehicle. Unfortunately, soldiers in the Royal Artillery were not. One gunnery officer sniffed, “A team of eight horses in my opinion is far superior under every condition.” Roberts was devastated. When another officer suggested that they might be interested in the caterpillar if it could carry some kind of large gun protected by bulletproof armor, Roberts chose not to pursue it—a decision he would later regret. He only made one sale to the public and came to the conclusion that the caterpillar tractor was a loser. He decided to sell the caterpillar-track patent to cover Hornsby & Sons’ losses.

Enter C. H. Holt.


While Hornsby & Sons was developing engines and tractors in England, C. H. Holt Manufacturing was building wagon wheels and frames in the United States. Founded in California in 1864, Holt quickly evolved into a large-scale farm equipment manufacturer, building 20-ton machines capable of hauling 50 tons. Holt tried to keep his heavy machines from sinking into deep mud by equipping them with tires seven feet in diameter and six feet wide. When that didn’t work, he built redwood tracks for the tractors to ride on, which was cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive. In 1909 he went to England to see what other farm-equipment manufacturers were doing to combat the mud problem. Holt saw the potential in the caterpillar tractor and snapped up the patent from Hornsby & Sons for a mere £4,000 pounds ($86,000 today). Holt also had the foresight to trademark the name “Caterpillar.”

Hornsby & Sons lost out due to bad timing—the British War Office decided within the year that they needed lots of caterpillar tractors to tow their heavy howitzers across the uneven fields of France and Belgium during World War I. They purchased 420 from Holt Mfg. for the hefty sum of $5,500 each ($118,000 today). By 1914 Holt had shipped 1,200 Caterpillar tractors to the English, French, and Russians, who sent them off to war. Most importantly, the Holt Caterpillar became the inspiration for the British tank.

Today, Caterpillar, Inc. is the largest manufacturer manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, and industrial gas turbines in the world, putting it at #66 on the 2010 Fortune 500 list. U.S. troops move forward with British tanks during the advance on the St. Quentin Canal, France, 1918.


(Image credit: BulldozerD11)

Although Hornsby & Sons missed the business opportunity of a lifetime when Roberts sold the Caterpillar patent, the company prospered with the Hornsby-Akroyd “hot bulb” engine. An early diesel engine designed by Herbert Akroyd Stuart, it was used to power tractors, locomotives, boats, submarines, and lighthouses for a generation. Hornsby-Akroyds powered the lights that originally lit the Statue of Liberty, Rock of Gibraltar, and Taj Mahal.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Weird, Weird World: EPIC.  

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