What was it first?
A solution for farmers, or a solution for construction workers?
Although it’s unclear who actually invented the first bulldozer, the bulldozer shovel blade has been around long before the first motorized tractors. In fact, the first wooden blade bulldozers were mule-or- horse-powered and used to move dirt as well as smooth rough ground for planting fields…for farmers.
Some say the first bulldozer was invented in 1904 by Benjamin Holt who developed an endless chain tread for his steam engine. Around the same time, the Hornsby Company of England also patented their version of a bulldozer which was closer to what is known today as a bulldozer because it was steered by controlling power to each track.
Hornsby sold his patents to Holt around 1914. Even though some people refer to these inventions as bulldozers, they were actually crawlers, and not technically bulldozers.
Most people, however, give credit for the bulldozer invention to Kansas farmer James Cummings and draftsman J. Earl McLeod who created a scraper blade in 1923. Their patent, approved in 1925, was for a “scraper blade mounted forwardly of the tractor on a pair of pivoting arms which are linked to the sides of the tractor, e.g. bulldozers.”
“The tractor to which Cummings and McLeod attached their bulldozer blade was a wheeled farm tractor. From what I can gather, it came about because Cummings had won a contract to backfill a pipeline trench,” said Deas Plant, a specialist in earth-moving and construction plant operations. Plant, who grew up and lives in Brisbane, Australia, has been operating bulldozers for over 50 years.
“Neither of these inventors actually built a bulldozer,” said Plant. “They were simply track-laying traction engines,” Plant said. “The scraper blade in the front of the machine is technically the bulldozer, and the machine is referred to as a crawler tractor.”
Another contributor to the innovation of the bulldozer is LaPlant-Choate, who produced some of the first bulldozers and motor scrapers. “Some experts believe LaPlant-Choate Mfg. Co of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, first fitted a bulldozer blade to a track laying tractor,” Plant said, “producing the first bulldozer in regular commercial production.” The machine was used in the 1923 construction of the Dixie Highway in Kentucky.
LaPlant-Choate took its name from E.W. LePlant, who started the company in 1889 by moving houses and pulling tree stumps, and nephew Roy Choate, joined him in 1911. The company evolved into the business of manufacturing bulldozer and snow plow blades and other equipment, and was sold in 1952 to Allis-Chalmers.Eventually, it was The Caterpillar Tractor Company that came to dominate the bulldozer market. The company was formed in August, 1925, by the merger of Holt’s company and its major competitor, the C. L. Best Gas Tractor Company.
The Caterpillar name is attributed to a photographer hired by Holt to take pictures of one of his crawler tractors. The photographer noticed that the rollers looked like a caterpillar when he saw the image upside-down through his camera lens. Holt liked it, and the name stuck.
The history of the word “bulldozer” goes back to the 19th century when a bulldozer denoted a horizontal forging press used for shaping and bending metal. Another term, a bull-dose, was a large dose — literally effective for a bull — of any sort of medicine or punishment. Bull-dosing also meant coercion or intimidation. In the late 19th century, bulldozing meant using brute force to push over or through any obstacle, referring to two bulls butting heads in a fight. Today’s term might be a “bully.”
During World War 1, Holt crawler tractors were used extensively by both American and British forces as ‘beasts of burden’ hauling heavy artillery and other heavy loads around the front lines where no other vehicles could handle the muddy conditions, Plant noted. It was also during World War 1 that the first tracked armored tanks were developed and were first used in combat by the British Army in September, 1916.
In the late 1930s, the tracked vehicles became more common, and they became the go-to machine in the construction industry working on large projects like the building of Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.
By the 1940s, the term bulldozer referred to the entire machine and not just the attachment.
Fleets of bulldozers were used in WWII to construct highways, runways and fortifications. Military bulldozers rumbled through bombed-out villages across Europe, working to clear roads and keep supply lines open, and rolled into camps as they were liberated by Allied forces. They were the first to go ashore on amphibious assaults, including the Normandy landings in 1944. Navy Admiral William Halsey said there were four things that helped win the war in the Pacific – airplanes, tanks, submarines and bulldozers.
Following the war, the bulldozer cleared the rubble of bombed cities, built roads and leveled farmland in Europe. When President Eisenhower enacted the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, it meant the construction of the U.S. interstate system, and the bulldozer was center stage.
The 1950s was an era of rapid growth and construction in the United States, but those years were equally significant for large-scale destruction in the name of progress, according to Francesca Russello Ammon, in her 2016 book, Bulldozer. In order to clear space for new suburban tract housing, an ambitious system of interstate highways, and extensive urban renewal development, wrecking companies demolished buildings while earthmoving contractors leveled land at an unprecedented pace and scale, she writes.
Over the years, the bulldozer became an American icon. The size and sophistication of the machines grew, with the addition of automatic transmissions, hydraulic cylinders, electric motors, GPS technology and automatic grade control.
“The machine has changed a lot in the last almost 100 years,” Plant noted, “from an attachment on a wheeled farm tractor in 1923 to a fully integrated machine in 2020.”
“Many advances have been made over the years in bulldozer blade design and types, in crawler tractor design and in the design of controls for bulldozers. Horsepower has increased by well over 50 times and weights have likewise increased exponentially,” Plant said. “One can only wonder what Cummings and McLeod would think of today’s machines,” he said.
What started out as a solution for farmers eventually became a solution for the construction industry.
Today, this American icon is just a plain ‘ole “dozer.”
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- January, 2020 telephone interview with Deas Plant
- Bellis, Mary. “Famous Inventions: History of the Bulldozer.” ThoughtCo, Oct. 16, 2019, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-bulldozer-1991353
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJnvE9DGzrE – Blazing a Trail: A Century on Track, Battlefield Equipment Rentals