The Caterpillar Century

The Caterpillar Century was published as a commemoration of Caterpillar’s centennial anniversary. But the book has more substance than a piece of sheetcake or a bouquet of balloons. Like the products Caterpillar produces, The Caterpillar Century is massive, solid and gets the job done.

Written by Eric C. Orlemann, who specializes in large earthmoving equipment, the book takes a comprehensive look at Caterpillar from its start to present time, tracing the company’s relentless commitment to technological innovation. Orlemann offers a methodical progression from one development to the next, sharing insights into the evolution of technology and the ways that technology is applied. Clear, simple language and an abundance of stunning photography make the book a pleasure to sit and spend time with, or just flip through while on the run.

The journey begins in the late 1800s in California, where two bright, ambitious young men work, independently, to develop new machinery to pull harvesters so large that even large teams of horses struggled in the harness. Benjamin Holt and Daniel Best each turned to steam-powered traction engines as the solution, and each developed a unit that worked … under perfect conditions. If the ground was wet, however, or if the soil soft, as it often was in California, the heavy equipment bogged down. Use of extremely wide rim extensions helped a bit, but did not completely solve the problem. In 1904, when Holt tested a steamer whose rear drive wheels were replaced by a set of tracks, the solution was at hand.

After the first world war, which had a variety of significant implications for both firms, Holt and Best consolidated business operations in 1925 to form the Caterpillar Tractor Co. Two years later, a Benz diesel engine defeated a Caterpillar Sixty gas tractor in an equipment demonstration held in Sudan. Caterpillar rose to the challenge: Company officials purchased a Benz diesel engine and shipped it to the U.S. where Cat’s research department could dissect and study the engine. In an important company milestone, the resulting diesel, Sixty 1C12, set a new world record for non-stop plowing in 1932.

Another important milestone was the company’s decision, by the late 1930s, to move beyond the farm market, expanding into manufacture of road construction and maintenance equipment. The first step, development of the Auto Patrol self-propelled motor grader, was typically solid: The unit’s basic design endures more than 70 years later. Success in that expansion served as a springboard to the construction and earthmoving equipment markets, a move well-timed to coincide with Depression-era public works programs.

From there, the company was off and running. Orlemann outlines with great precision ongoing technological developments, even taking the reader into previously off-limits areas of product development and prototypes. There’s plenty of background on entry into new territory, like quarry and mining equipment, and monstrously massive equipment for major projects. The reader also gets an up-close look at partnerships, acquisitions and strategic alliances, including everything from  R.G. LeTourneau in the late 1930s and early 1940s (equipment for Caterpillar tractors) to DJB Engineering Ltd. in 1974 (articulated trucks).

Orlemann takes a deliberate path through the company’s history, winding from the Best-Holt beginnings 100 years ago, to the development of diesel power, the earthmover revolution, the demand for higher horsepower, the development of increasingly massive machinery, and a diversified product line. Newer offerings, the author notes, include skid steer, multi-terrain and backhoe loaders; telehandlers; demolition and wheel extractors; track and wheel material handlers; log loaders; track feller bunchers; vibratory soil, pneumatic and asphalt compacters; asphalt paving equipment; and underground mining equipment. At the beginning of the company’s second century, the pillars of its past and future remain earthmoving machines and track-type tractors.

Produced as an oversized, ‘coffee table’ book, The Caterpillar Century makes good use of its heft to present a huge collection of fabulous photography of farm and industrial equipment in what seem like almost life-size spreads. Early chapters of the book include rarely-seen images from archival and private collections. (Beautifully restored steam traction engines are showcased there as well.) Many models are showcased, all with detailed, informative captions that complement the text without repeating it. Factory shots are interspersed throughout, and provide yet another view of the company. Whether you come to this book as an enthusiast of early track-type tractors, or as a fan of big construction equipment, The Caterpillar Century delivers a product every bit as solid as one of the company’s familiar yellow earth-movers.

– The Caterpillar Century, by Eric C. Orlemann, Motorbooks International, 2003, ISBN 0-7603-1604-X, hardback, 384 pages; available through Farm Collector Books. For ordering information, see the advertisement on pages 48-49 of this issue.

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