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The milestones of earthmoving history

Unlike most tractor books, Yellow Steel features more words than color photographs – and consequently, it requires more than a casual couple of hours’ time turning glossy pages.

That’s because Yellow Steel is the – let’s make that THE – encyclopedia of the history of earthmoving equipment in this country and the world. Subtitled The Story of the Earthmoving Equipment Industry, this book records the history, problems and triumphs from earliest times of the equipment manufacturing companies and captains of the industry with great care and objectivity.

The author, William R. Haycraft, is a retired 35-year Caterpillar Inc., international marketing executive. In the book, he concentrates on particular time periods and how each affected the industry. After detailing the beginnings of the modern earthmoving industry, from 1831 to 1945, he moves forward in decade-sized hunks to 1995. The final, post-1995, chapter, ‘Perspectives,’ describes the state of the industry today, and forecasts its future.

The author points out that there has been a slow but steady, and now accelerating, convergence in product design, and in the less-tangible and less-measurable characteristics of product quality.

The histories and development of all the major earthmoving equipment companies are laid out against the background of their times. Caterpillar, Allis-Chalmers, International Harvester, J.I. Case, Deere & Company, Massey-Ferguson, Euclid, lesser-known companies, and later on, foreign competition all are documented.

The book, in just the right amount of detail, calls attention to interesting earthmoving milestones, including:

Robert G. LeTourneau, who got his start land leveling in California, made the greatest contributions to ‘the art and science of earthmoving,’ according to Haycraft. LeTourneau is credited with making the crawler tractor both a pusher and a puller. He also invented what he called a ‘rooter,’ now widely known as a ripper. He developed a cable winch for a crawler that raised and lowered a heavy blade, inventing what is now known as the bulldozer. He devised a large, cable-controlled crawler-drawn scraper and the first integral-wheel tractor-scraper, and as the author points out, this crawler tractor-towed scraper combination made up the first one-man mechanized system for moving earth in huge quantities.

On Thanksgiving Day 1904, Benjamin Holt tested an experimental steam-powered, track-type tractor, trying to develop a machine that could work on ground too soggy for wheel tractors. Holt may not have invented the track-type tractor, but he gets credit for refining the concept for practical usage, and for commercializing it.

In 1957, the Case 320 loader-backhoe was the first such machine of its type to be offered in factory-assembled form and warranted by the manufacturer.

The bottom line here is if you have any interest in the earthmoving industry, then this is a book for your bookshelf. FC

– Yellow Steel, The Story of the Earthmoving Equipment Industry, by William R. Haycraft, published by the University of Illinois Press, 2000; ISBN: 0-252-02497-4, 465 pages, 6 by 9-inch hardcover, $39.95.

– Chester Peterson Jr. is a full-time writer and photographer. He has 10 nonfiction books published, including seven ‘tractor’ books. Willard Keding operates his own earthmoving and contractor business, in which he utilizes several pieces of Yellow Steel.

‘Starting with crude wooden tools, individuals have never ceased to seek improvement in the means to move earth.’

– William R. Haycraft

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