Famous Inventions: History of the Bulldozer

0299 Bulldozer
Mark Morgan/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Some historians give credit to an American named Benjamin Holt for inventing the first "bulldozer" in 1904, and originally calling it a "caterpillar" or a crawler tractor. However, this would be misleading.

Benjamin Holt Did Not Build a Bulldozer

Expert Deas Plant from the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia commented that Benjamin Holt developed an endless chain tread for his steam traction engine at the end of 1904. At around the same time, the Hornsby company of England converted one of its wheeled steam traction engines ​to a tracklayer [crawler] format based on a patent granted to their chief engineer. Neither of these developments was a bulldozer, both were purely and simply track-laying traction engines. However, the Hornsby's version was closer to the bulldozers we know today in that it was steered by controlling power to each track instead of having a tiller wheel out in front of the tracks as Holt's machines did. Hornsby sold their patents to Benjamin Holt around 1913-14.​

First Came the Bulldozer Blade

It is not certain who invented the first bulldozer, however, the bulldozer blade was in use before the invention of any tractor. It consisted of a frame with a blade at the front into which were harnessed two mules. The mules would push the blade into a heap of dirt dumped by a cart and spread the dirt or push it over a bank to fill a hole or gully. The fun part came when you wanted the mules to back up for the next push.

Definition of a Bulldozer

The term bulldozer technically refers only to a shovel-like blade, over the years people have come to associate the term bulldozer to the entire vehicle both blade and crawler tractor combined.

Deas Plant added that "There is also some debate about who first fitted a bulldozer blade to a track-laying tractor, perhaps the La Plante-Choate company, one of the early manufacturers of bulldozer blades."

Again, there are various claimants for the title of first to fit a power control to one of these bulldozer blades with Robert Gilmour Le Tourneau probably being the leading contender.

The Caterpillar Tractor Company

The name caterpillar was coined by a photographer working for Benjamin Holt who was taking photos of one of Holt's track-laying or crawler tractors. Looking at the machine's upside-down image through his camera lens, he commented that the top of the track undulating over its carrier rollers looked like a caterpillar. Benjamin Holt liked the comparison and adopted it as the name for his track-laying system. He was using it for some years before the formation of the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

The Caterpillar Tractor Company was formed by the merger of the Holt company and their major competitor, the C. L. Best Gas Tractor Co., in August 1925.

What Do Bulldozers and Bulls Have in Common?

It appears that the word bulldozer came from the habit of stronger bulls pushing their lesser rivals backward in not-so-serious contests of strength outside of the mating season. These contests take on a more serious note during the mating season.

According to "Bulldozers" written by Sam Sargent and Michael Alves: "Around 1880, the common usage of 'bull-dose' in the United States meant administering a large and efficient dose of any sort of medicine or punishment. If you 'bull-dosed' someone, you gave him a severe whipping or coerced or intimidated him in some other way, such as by holding a gun to his head. In 1886, with a slight variation in spelling, a 'bulldozer' had come to mean both a large-caliber pistol and the person who wielded it. By the late 1800s, 'bulldozing' came to mean using brawny force to push over, or through, any obstacle."

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Bellis, Mary. "Famous Inventions: History of the Bulldozer." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-bulldozer-1991353. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). Famous Inventions: History of the Bulldozer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-bulldozer-1991353 Bellis, Mary. "Famous Inventions: History of the Bulldozer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-bulldozer-1991353 (accessed June 9, 2023).