From Tractor To Tank
Benjamin Holt invented a technology that fed millions. It was soon adapted into a technology that killed millions.
Benjamin Holt was a Yankee immigrant to California whose inventions freed farmers from tedious hand labor and put food on tables around the world. He was a pioneer marketer and exporter of heavy machinery whose tractors boosted America’s reputation for innovation and quality in the early years of this century. His rumbling “caterpillars,” born in agriculture, helped win World War I by hauling artillery and inspiring the invention of the tank. His machines and what they inspired changed the face of the earth, for better and worse.
Holt was born in Loudon, New Hampshire, on New Year’s Day in 1849, the seventh of eight children. He and his brothers learned woodworking in their father’s sawmill and later at a familyowned wagon factory in Concord, New Hampshire. In 1864 Charles Henry Holt, one of Ben’s older brothers, headed for San Francisco and set up a business importing and selling lumber, to which he soon added various sorts of hardware. Four years later he established a West Coast branch of the family’s wagonmaking business. In 1871 two more brothers, William and Ames, joined him; Benjamin stayed behind to run the Concord factory.
As the years passed, Charles realized that the expansion of farming in California’s fertile Central Valley was going to fuel a boom in agricultural machinery. He also recognized that his younger brother Ben had an inventive streak that could profitably be put to work in the Central Valley. In 1883 Ben arrived in California to form the Stockton Wheel Company with Charles. Ames returned to Concord; he and William sold their shares in the firm.
The brothers’ initial business in Stockton was a continuation of what the San Francisco outfit had done: selling wagon wheels made from Eastern hardwood, which they imported and seasoned. They quickly expanded into agricultural and mechanical implements, and in 1886 the company put its first combine (i.e., combined reaper and thresher) on the market. Five years after that, Benjamin Holt invented and patented the horse-drawn sidehill combine, which worked on sloping ground—the first of his two major achievements. It put him on the road to an international reputation and won him the sobriquet Edison of the West.
Ben Holt had brought to California plenty of experience with mechanical things but no specialized knowledge of farming. In only eight years he became one of the state’s most important inventors. How did it happen? A happy combination of experience, capital, talent, geography, timing, and hard work.
Between them Charles and Ben had more than thirty years of experience as wheelwrights and wagonmakers. They had accumulated the capital to build facilities where Ben could turn his inventive ideas into iron—and when Ben Holt tackled a mechanical problem, his persistence and concentration saw him through. As for geography, the Central Valley has some of the richest soil in the country. Its climate proved to be ideal for the development of the combine, because dry summers let the grain get “dead ripe” in the field, unlike the Midwest, where cut wheat had to be dried out before it could be threshed. And Stockton, served by waterways that led to San Francisco Bay, was the hub of agricultural shipping for the whole valley. It had the most farm-machinery manufacturers of any city in California.
The combine, which had been in scattered use in California since the 186Os, has been described as the most important agricultural invention of the last three hundred years because it merged the cutting and threshing of grain into one mechanical operation, cutting the stalks and then knocking the kernels out of the grain heads. Separate machines that had previously been used for these two related tasks had been around since early in the century; before that, the American farmer harvested wheat basically the same way as in biblical times—by hand, with scythe or sickle. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, an acre of wheat took roughly sixty hours of labor to produce. By the end of the century, it took twenty. Bread and cereal products became plentiful and cheap.
The inspiration for Holt’s sidehill combine was provided by one of the company’s sales agents, who was stationed in a town called Red Bluff, in rolling land 160 miles north of Stockton. In the spring of 1891 the man sent Holt a letter saying that hillside farmers could not gather their wheat crop as efficiently as those on flat land, because when an ordinary combine was used on a hillside, chaff and straw flowed to the downhill side of the machine, preventing the grain from being cleaned and threshed properly. Grain rode straw out onto the ground, with a loss of two to six bushels per acre. The agent suggested that a combine for sloping ground was sorely needed. Holt rose to the challenge and traveled to Red Bluff; the agent picked him up in a company carriage, and they drove into 27,000 acres of wheat-bearded hills soon to be ready for harvest.
The sales agent tried to get his boss to talk, but Holt, already thinking about the structural requirements of a hillside combine, responded only with an occasional grunt. This was typical. Holt was known for putting everything else out of his mind when tackling a mechanical problem. He forgot meals and could be oblivious of conversation. He designed and rearranged parts of machines in his head, and he recalled technical specifications without checking a reference. Usually he didn’t rely on blueprints; he seldom wrote anything down. Some of his co-workers didn’t recall ever seeing him with a book.
Toward the end of the carriage ride through the hills of wheat, the agent said: “Mr. Holt, you will agree with me that it is perfectly useless to try and run any harvester [i.e., combine] upon those hills. It would be foolhardy to make such an attempt, or to expect to get any harvester to do this work.” A nettled Holt announced that on the contrary he had decided to build a combine that would do just that. Later on the same trip he promised the area’s wheat farmers a new machine; he had worked out enough of the details in his head to commit himself.
Holt reduced his conception to wood and iron when he got back to Stockton, assembling his first sidehill combine fast enough to be used in later harvests in that year, 1891. He designed it with two separate wooden frames, permitting the drive wheels to be raised or lowered independently of each other, so that the threshing machine could remain horizontal while the combine operated on slopes as steep as thirty degrees.
Holt’s sidehill combine got rave reviews. In December 1891 The Rural Californian praised it as “unrivalled in the world of mechanics for ingenuity and masterly mechanism, a machine which cannot be surpassed for simplicity and perfect practical working.” By 1916 his combines were harvesting 90 percent of the grain on the Pacific Coast.
Flatland farmers in the 189Os were demanding larger combines, because the more wheat you cut in one pass, the greater your productivity. While Holt’s first combine had a fourteenfoot sickle bar, by 1893 his company had built one with a fifty-foot sickle bar, dwarfing today’s models, which must be small enough to move from one farm to another. Making combines that big did not require any great leaps of technology, but there were severe nonmechanical obstacles. Even medium-sized machines required as many as forty horses and mules, whose power was needed not just to drag the combine forward but also to operate the threshing machinery. The beasts ate year-round, harvest or no harvest. Summer temperatures in the Central Valley often exceeded a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and many animals died of heat stroke. With the trend to ever bigger combines, the need for steam-operated machinery quickly became apparent.
Holt had built his first steam traction engine back in 1890, four years after producing his first combine. Traction engines looked and sounded like railroad locomotives and could pull the largest combines or gang plows. But they were huge and heavy. Holt’s first one weighed 45,000 pounds when topped off with 600 gallons of water. The steamers occasionally crashed through wooden bridges designed for horse and carriage traffic.
Having given wheat farmers the power to pull the largest combines and gang plows, Holt turned his attention to the needs of farmers in a rich, soggy area called the Delta. Its base stretched forty-eight miles between Sacramento and Stockton, and its apex lay where the Sacramento and San Joaquin river networks converge, northeast of San Francisco. Land in the Delta was very fertile, but farming it was risky because heavy steam machinery tended to sink into the soft earth, which had been reclaimed from marshland by means of levees.
Holt first tried to make his steam traction engines suitable for the Delta by doubling the width of their drive wheels. One giant steamer designed for Delta work had eighteen feet of wheel on either side of the engine, making it look like a cross between a locomotive and a giant rolling pin. But such monsters were too expensive and hard to maneuver. Reasonable-sized steam traction engines still buried themselves to the axles in the spongy soil, especially during the winter rainy season. Like Red Bluff, the Delta demanded a new machine, one that would economically distribute its weight over an even greater area.
Holt and his staff traveled around America and Europe looking for the answer. It turned out to be centuries old: Divide the solid wheel into hinged segments resembling a metal watchband. In motion the combine would be a track-laying machine, one that put down its own steel path, crawled over it, and picked it up as it passed, like a portable railroad. The combine’s weight would spread over an area potentially as large as the combine itself instead of concentrating at the points where the wheels met the ground. For centuries dozens of remembered and forgotten inventors had contributed to this idea’s development.
To test the design, Holt mechanics replaced the drive wheels on a steam traction engine with a pair of tracks nine feet long and three and a half feet wide, made of three- by four-inch wooden slats. On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1904, the machine was put to work plowing land that Farm Implement News later described as “a tract where a man could not walk without sinking to his knees … useless for crop raising for several years because no way was found to plow it.” The experiment was a success.
Holt and his engineers tested the machine for several more days before taking it back to the factory. Charles Clements, a company photographer, was standing next to Holt, watching its return, when he noticed the movement of the tracks and said, “It crawls just like a caterpillar.” Holt replied, “Caterpillar it is. That’s the name for it.” The Holt company tested six different track-laying steam engines in 1905. the year of Charles Holt’s death, and sold its first commercial model in 1906. Holt registered “Caterpillar” as the company’s trademark in 1910.
Holt had developed the steam traction engine to pull big combines, then adapted the track-laying principle to those steam engines in order to cultivate the richest land in California. Within a few years he would increase the horsepower and decrease the weight by switching from steam to gasoline power.
By 1916 two thousand Holt tractors were at work in more than twenty countries. As his exports grew, Holt reversed the pattern of westward industrial expansion. He bought a factory in Peoria, Illinois, to handle exports (including to the vast wheatland markets of Argentina, Hungary, and Russia) and domestic business east of the Rockies.
Meanwhile, war had come. In Hungary some Holt tractors had wound up on the estates of noblemen, many of whom were army officers. When World War I broke out, some officers wanted to draft the American tractor to haul Austrian siege guns. Holt refused to sell them any more. At the same time, the British started ordering as many tractors as they could, after Holt engineers demonstrated them for Royal Army officers in September 1914.
But the British didn’t stop there. Col. Ernest D. Swinton of the Royal Engineers, who is now known as the father of the tank, conceived of adapting the track-laying principle to a metalshrouded machine that could shrug off machine-gun fire, break through barbed wire, and cross trenches. In April 1918 Swinton visited Holt to thank him and his employees for the Caterpillars that had convinced him of the feasibility of developing the tank; they returned the compliment with a parade. Holt’s experiments in the Delta had led to a British general’s salute in downtown Stockton.
Holt remained dedicated to his work; his trips out of town were usually business-related. He had been in failing health for about a month when he died in Stockton on December 5, 1920. One of his last requests was for a progress report on a machine he had under development.