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Sat 18 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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On the right track

We couldn't do our jobs without tracked vehicles. This is how they came to exist.

We couldn't do our jobs without tracked vehicles. This is how they came to exist.

Putting too much pressure on the ground is a problem - particularly if the machine that is sinking is the only thing that could pull itself out.

In the early days, machinery was moved around large sites on rails, which obviously limited where the plant could go. Several early attempts were made to build tracked carriages - with some reports suggesting that such machines were in use during the Crimean war.

However it was the beginning of the twentieth century when Holt, a company in California began to put these theories into action. Spurred on by farmers wishing to mechanise production across the soft, fertile plains Holt tried various solutions to building machines that wouldn't sink into the ground.

First it tried using massive, wide wheels - up to twelve feet in diameter. Then it tried making tracks made from wooden planks. This idea was successful - and the first steam crawler went on sale in 1906.

Unbeknown to either company, development was also happening at a firm called R. Hornsby in the UK. This company had developed a ‘chain track' which was superior to the one developed by Holt in several ways.

Unlike the American company, though Hornsby just couldn't get any orders. Despite lots of promotion - including the first film made for commercial purposes, the company only ever sold one, so disillusioned, it sold the patents to Holt in 1914.

Ironically, no sooner had it done this Word War One broke out and Winston Churchill, who at that time was First Lord of the Admiralty wanted to look at the possibility of making an armoured track-laying fighting vehicle. As Hornsby had no rights to the invention, British engineers had to start from scratch.

In a further twist, the war office was also forced to buy a fleet of crawler tractors from Holt. For its part Holt began referring to its tracked products as ‘the caterpillar', a name which the market responded well too.

While all of this was going on, a lawsuit for copyright was rumbling between Holt and a company named Best who also made tractors. After a long and immensely complex string of events the two companies called it quits and merged in 1925, with the new firm taking the name that was by now so closely associated with the product.

Thus Caterpillar, both the brand and the generic name for the tracks were born.

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