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.