Tractor Treads


Benjamin Holt

“In the Roberts Island tract, where a man could not walk without sinking to his knees, and where tule-shoed horses could not be used, the new traction engine was operated without a perceptible impression in the ground.”

Farm Implement News, May 18, 1905

“It looks like a caterpillar,” said a photographer observing Benjamin Holt’s new device, a machine that crawled on treads rather than moved along on wheels. Holt’s named his tractor, and later his company, after the term.

Tractor treads enabled tractors to move through uneven terrain, lowering the cost of farming. Eventually, the also treads enabled military tanks.

An “endless track steering specially adapted for vehicles having both steerable wheels and endless track” is how Holt’s patent described his invention.

Holt Tractor Patent

Holt and his brothers were in business building combine harvesters. Treads were an innovation to better move over rough terrain. Before Holt, over a hundred patents issued for various treads but none worked.

Holt traveled to England, where most research was done, to study the failed experiments. On Nov. 24, 1904, Holt demonstrated a working tractor tread.

Created and initially used for farm equipment, the tractor tread became vital during WWI for the ability to maneuver over barbed wire and through trenches. Great Britain, France, and Russia ordered Holt tractors but the Germans were not interested. After the outbreak of WWI, the Allies had over 1,000 tractors in Europe that could be converted to early tanks whereas the Germans had none. Throughout the war, Germany failed to develop more than a few dozen tractor tanks.

Eventually, the Holt Manufacturing Company evolved into Caterpillar. In 2018, Caterpillar had $54.7 million in revenue with an $81 billion market cap, a Fortune 100 company.

As oftentimes happens, Alvin Lombard allegedly first built a tractor but there were few witnesses. Lombard’s machine ran on treads and hauled logs. Patent litigation ensued which, as usual, eventually settled.