Mike Hand Books

Ontario Industrial Histories

Month: March 2020

The Caterpillar Track Story

The Caterpillar Track Story

We have all read that the caterpillar track came from Holt who later merged with Best to form the Caterpillar Co. of Peoria. Holt had been experimenting with a chain track design in the first decade of the 1900’s.

What is not so well known is that in Grantham, England, the R. Hornsby Co. was also, in 1904, experimenting with a chain track tractor design.

Hornsby tracked tractor

They built and demonstrated a tracked vehicle powered by a gasoline engine to the military in 1907 at Aldershot proving grounds.  This unit showed its capability to traverse water and ditches and soft sand with no problems at all, alongside horse drawn vehicles that bogged down constantly. At the time, everyone thought highly of it, and the soldiers watching nicknamed it a caterpillar.  But the senior artillery officers there were more interested in keeping their cavalry horses.

In July 1904, under patent # 16345, Hornsby had patented a crawler track “design with chain links and pins with crossbars and blocks of metal and wood  ………. when the vehicle is running the body is rolling forward on the chains. Steering is accomplished by varying the driving sprocket wheels speed on either side of the vehicle.” In 1909, another Hornsby patent # 16436, covered additional elements of the design.

In 1909, an order was received by R. Hornsby Ltd. for two steam engines on caterpillar tracks from a transport executive who had seen the movie of the tracked vehicle the year before and felt something similar would work well in the Yukon area but wanted steam power.

Hornsby/Foster steam tracked tractor

By this time, the Hornsby Company was no longer making steam engines so they ordered two steam engines from a Lincoln firm, William Foster & Co. and mounted them on tracks. These units provided excellent service for many years in the Yukon and one was recently rebuilt and is in a museum near where it was used.

In 1910, Holt, wanting to keep the rights to the name caterpillar, copyrighted it. And in 1914, was able to purchase the North American rights for the Hornsby track system patents for $8,000! Hornsby was so busy building oil engines they were no longer interested in pursuing the track drive vehicle. Holt’s primary interest in these patents was the wheel brake steering concept covered in Hornsby’s patents, and this enabled them to eliminate the steering wheels at front that they were using on their tracked machines

About the same time, the British military was looking for a vehicle that could cross the trenches and craters and remembered the Aldershot demo of 1908. William Foster & Co. of Lincoln was chosen to build the experimental units because of their experience with the tracked Yukon steam units. Foster built some 48 tanks and had them in successful service in the Somme by late 1916, much to the astonishment and dismay of the German forces.

Foster WW1 tank in Lincoln museum

Only one is known to exist today and is on display in the Lincoln, England Museum of Lincolnshire Life.

During WW1, the Holt Company built high volumes of their tracked tractors for the US military for hauling supplies and guns on the battlefield. One order for 442 of the Holt 75 tractors was built for them in England at this time by Ruston Proctor Ltd. in Lincoln.

The Champion Engine

The Champion Engine

In the mid 1880’s, David June of Ohio designed what turned out to be one  of the most popular of the early threshing engines, the Champion steam engine. With a vertical boiler mounted between the two rear wheels, it was of a very simple design, although somewhat cumbersome in appearance. The centre crank engine was mounted on a vee shaped casting that extended horizontally in front of the boiler and was suspended at the crank end on the front axle swivel. The engine used a simple rotary steam valve, and the vertical boiler was renowned for much faster steaming from cold than a conventional horizontal boiler.

A prominent feature of the Waterous Champion steam engine was its spark arrester.

Section through spark arrester

This was a must for these engines, working all day driving threshers among piles of dusty straw, or driving sawmills in the sawdust laden atmosphere. It was an option installed on a very high percentage of the production. Patented by David June, he assigned the Canadian rights to the spark arrester to his nephew, Charles Waterous Jr., who collected $25 per engine built at his father’s company in Brantford, the Waterous Engine Works.

Waterous began building these engines under license, making 9 units in 1877, rising to 210 units a year by 1880. Over 2,500 of these engines were made at the Brantford factory. Many of the later engines were built as self-propelled traction engines, using a chain drive to the rear wheels.

They were sold all over Canada and their popularity

Self propelled Champion engine

generated numerous stories and anecdotes. One customer stated that he had bought the first one built by Waterous and had done 73 days threshing that year without a breakdown on account of the engine. He also claimed that he could do 30 to 50 minutes of work before other engines with horizontal boilers could get steam up!

A mailing in 1911 from the Winnipeg Telegram showed the Champion engine driving a saw in the yard of the Winnipeg penitentiary with the caption “Number 733 was sentenced on May 25, 1883 to life term by Frank J Waterous”. (Frank was manager of the Winnipeg branch of Waterous.)

Another 1903 letter stated that the customer had bought his engine in 1880 for $1,200 and over 23 years of hard work had spent only $128 in repairs in that time!

The Champion engine demonstrated the company’s excellent workmanship, and during its lifetime, established itself as a legendary machine on the Canadian farm and in the lumber business.

(See my book Iron Steam and Wood for a history of this company

Logos Before Political Correctness

Logos before Political Correctness

The city of Brantford sits just across the River Grand in Southern Ontario from the extensive Six Nations Iroquois reserve, one of the largest first nations reserve in Canada. One of the major manufacturers in the city was the Brantford Coach and Body Ltd, one of Canada’s largest semi trailer manufacturers.  This close association was used shamelessly to stake out the name in the marketing of their products in a manner that today would not be considered acceptable.

In the early years after World War Two, Brantford Coach began to name their trailers after some of the Six Nation tribes. The corporate logo featured an Indian head dress and was used in the metal stamped badge attached to the front of each of their trailers. Their new frameless van trailer line was proudly introduced as their “Canadian Chief” trailer line.

The platform trailer line was called the “Iroqouis”, and the dump trailer line was the “Mohawk” line. All of their product literature carried the corporate trademark of a first nation feathered head dress.

The ultimate use of the Indian symbol was exercised in the cover of a company brochure promoting  the  Brantford Coach  “Progress in Payloads”, a nation-wide, city by city promotional  tour of their newest trailer line of products. In addition to the front cover headlined by the corporate headdress logo, both front and rear covers showed scantily clad female models wearing native head dresses.

Today’s marketing use of symbols has come a long way from those competitive post war days.

(For a history of this company, see my book From Wagon to Trailer”)


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