While it isn’t possible to fully cover the history of half-tracks within the space of a few pages, this article will attempt to provide a basic primer.
Many people think half-tracks were invented as military machines during World War II. Similarly, many people think someone named “Caterpillar” invented half-tracks. Even if one is aware that the Caterpillar tractor was actually developed (though not invented) by Benjamin Holt and C.L. Best — two men who were competitors in the early days of track-laying tractors — one might be surprised to learn that the Caterpillar Tractor Company had little to do with half-tracks. Indeed, “Mr. Caterpillar” (Benjamin Holt) disliked the half-track concept; and two other men, Alvin Lombard and Holman Linn, were largely responsible for Holt’s negative feelings… more on that later.
The biggest surprise may be that the half-track, not the full-tracked “Caterpillar,” was the first practical track-laying vehicle. Although there is some evidence that a steam-powered tracked vehicle was designed in the U.S. during the 1860s, it was apparently never actually built; and the first practical half-track was invented, not during WWII, or even during the First World War, but in the 1890s by a man named Alvin Lombard.
Half-track vehicles were being built and used in civilian applications many years before World War One, and production and usage increased dramatically between the two world wars. Perhaps not surprisingly, the half-track was first invented to meet the needs of the lumber industry. In the late 1800s, most commercial lumbering in the U.S. was limited to cutting timber that grew close enough to rivers to allow it to be floated to a sawmill. However, as the nation’s demand for lumber grew, so did the need for a way to transport logs that did not depend on rivers. There were logging railroads, but building railroads was time-consuming and expensive, and logs still had to be hauled to a loading point by teams of horses or oxen. Though it might be hard to believe today (unless you’re a farmer or rancher) feeding and caring for horses and oxen, especially during winter months, is also expensive. There were steam-powered tractors with wheels at the time, but these did not perform well on soft ground in forests, and were of no use in deep snow.
Alvin Lombard was a mechanic who owned his own shop in Waterville, Maine. He had already invented several machines for the lumber industry; among these a debarking device and a governor for water turbines. As the story goes, Lombard was returning home on a streetcar and had a conversation with the manager of one of the local lumber companies. The lumberman complained about the high cost of using horses to haul logs, and suggested that Lombard invent a machine that could do the job more efficiently. It’s said that Lombard went to work on the idea as soon as he got home, and in less than 24 hours came up with a set of blueprints. He then arranged for the Waterville Iron Works to build the first Lombard Log Hauler. This huge and impressive machine looked like a half-tracked steam locomotive with skids instead of front wheels. Although it could be fitted with front wheels, it was mainly intended for use in snow to pull a train of logs on sleds.
One might say that not only was the Lombard Log Hauler the world’s first practical track-laying tractor, as well as the world’s first practical half-track, it was also the world’s first snowmobile. Like a steam locomotive, the Lombard Log Hauler was immensely powerful. Weighing about 20 tons, it could pull a log train of six or more sleds weighing around 100 tons. Top speed was about 3 mph, but speed wasn’t important: what mattered was moving logs. The Lombard Log Hauler was an instant success, though early models required two men to operate them: an engineer – who was presumably also the fireman — and another man at the front of the machine to steer it. Alvin Lombard began building his half-tracked haulers in the late 1890s, and applied for a patent in November of 1900. Thus, it was Lombard’s steam-powered log hauler — not, as many people think, the Caterpillar tractor — that sired every crawler machine, bulldozer, army tank, and military half-track on earth. In fact, it was Lombard’s “endless-chain” track design, not Benjamin Holt’s “Caterpillar System,” that was adapted by the French, with Lombard’s assistance, to build the first tanks of WWI.
It’s been said by some military vehicle experts that “half-tracked vehicles achieved their glory during WWII with the Allied and Axis forces.” However, there were U.S. military half-tracks that served in WWI, such as the McKeen Balloon Support Vehicle. The use of observation balloons for directing artillery fire was an established practice during WWI (first used during the U.S. Civil War). The balloon was transported by the support vehicle to a position near the enemy and then inflated. After being launched, the balloon remained tethered to the support vehicle by a steel cable. The observer in the balloon’s gondola used a wire telephone to direct artillery fire upon enemy positions. Rapid ascent and descent, as well as a fast retreat by the support vehicle, were essential to the life-span of the balloon, its pilot, and the support crew, because the enemy did not take kindly to being observed and shelled. Half-track vehicles were ideal for this duty because they possessed the best characteristics of both wheeled and full-tracked machines… good weight-carrying ability for their own weight and size, plus superb cross-country agility, combined with relatively high speed. In addition, half-tracked vehicles used many components that interchanged with those of similar wheeled trucks, which simplified supply, maintenance, and repair.
But, one may ask, what of Benjamin Holt, who is often —though erroneously — credited with inventing the crawler tractor and therefore the half-track? Around 1907, many years after Alvin Lombard had been building his steam-powered half-tracks in Waterville, Maine, a company in Stockton, Calif., owned by Benjamin Holt, began manufacturing full-tracked agricultural tractors. These machines were much better suited to the soft farmlands of California’s Sacramento Delta than the steel-wheeled tractors of the time. This led to the impression, at least on the West Coast, that Benjamin Holt had invented the crawler track system. And he didn’t deny it. But, because of his claim as the inventor of track-laying machines, Holt was having patent-infringement problems with the Best Tractor Company of Oakland, Calif.,, whose founder, C.L. Best, had also “invented” the crawler track. Some years later in the 1920s, and probably weary of expensive litigation, Holt and Best would merge to become the Caterpillar Tractor Company of Peoria, Ill.
Meanwhile, back in the woods of Maine, Lombard was not happy when he learned that Holt was claiming the credit for inventing crawler tracks. In February of 1910, Lombard went to California to advise Holt that he was infringing on Lombard’s patent. Lombard said it was time Holt acknowledged this and paid a royalty. Holt, who was apparently wiser in the ways of capitalism, replied that if Lombard would send him a contract agreement, they would “work something out.” Lombard sent the agreement as soon as he returned to Maine, but Holt never signed it. No royalty was ever paid to AlLombard, either by Holt or by Holt’s tractor company. One might assume that Lombard didn’t have the time and energy to expend on lengthy litigation, or, more likely, the advent of WWI kept him too busy working with the French Military on their new tanks in addition to building log haulers as fast as he could to keep up with the war’s voracious demand for lumber, so he probably didn’t need royalty payments from Holt.
If one believes in bad karma, one might say that Holt created his own when he ignored Alvin Lombard and continued to claim he’d invented crawler tracks, because half-tracks would return to haunt him… and they would be built by a man who was more adept at business than Lombard.
The Caterpillar name, by the way, was not coined by crawler tractor co-developer Holt, but, reputedly by a newspaper reporter who was covering a demonstration of the machine. He said, “It looked like a caterpillar running over the ground.” However, this description is also credited to a demonstration of a steam-powered crawler tractor in England invented by Richard Hornsby. Holt was also accused of infringing on Hornsby’s patent… but that’s another story.
Nevertheless, Holt and “his” Caterpillar System did play a part in WWI: Holt built several models of artillery tractors for the U.S. Army. Among these were the Holt 2.5-ton prime mover, as well 5- and 10-ton machines; and at least two versions, the 15-ton prime mover, and, its larger brother, the 20-ton model, could have been called half-tracks since they had steel wheels in front for steering. Holt may have disliked half-tracks for predating “his” invention, and he might have lost some sleep wondering if Lombard would sue him – Hornsby did sue him – but Holt was too much of a businessman to ignore a profitable market. His company had been offering a half-track kit for civilian vehicles several years before WWI. This kit consisted of crawler tracks that replaced the rear drive wheels on conventional trucks of about 3 tons. Some of these kits were fitted to U.S. military vehicles during WWI.
These kits were also adapted to other U.S. military trucks of the period, such as the Jeffrey, and Nash Quad. Like the McKeen Balloon Support Vehicle, which was based on the FWD Model B, both the Jeffrey and Nash Quad were all-wheel-drive trucks to begin with, so they became the first half-tracks to feature a powered front axle… which would be a feature on U.S. Military half-tracks in WWII. Holt also partnered with the Garford Motor Truck Company to build the Garford-Holt half-track, but this came after the war when the U.S. Military had more vehicles than it needed or wanted as the nation ostensibly returned to a policy of Isolationism. The “War To End All Wars” had been won, and the civilized world was seemingly at peace… even though the “Great War” had actually set the stage for a second performance of even greater barbarity.
Benjamin Holt went back to making agricultural tractors and construction machinery for a rapidly growing and worldwide market, while Alvin Lombard continued building log haulers, some of which were now powered by gasoline and diesel engines and were being used as snowplows, in construction, and for general transportation over roadless terrain or through deep winter snow. Half-tracks were proving very useful in many civilian applications. Caterpillar continued to offer conversion kits for conventional trucks, and several other companies had gotten into the half-track business. Conversion kits were offered for wheeled farm tractors, such as the Fordson and McCormick-Deering. There was a kit for the Model-T Ford to convert it to a half-track “Snow Flyer.” Mack Truck also offered a “snow-flyer” conversion kit, and both were used by the U.S. Postal Service as rural mail carriers during the winter months. Mack also built several other half-tracks, such as the Mack Roadless. Mack later teamed up with Walter J. Christie of tank design fame to produce one of the first half-track vehicles with rubber instead of steel tracks, the Mack-Christie.
Let’s back-track a bit (no pun intended) to introduce Holman Linn, a man who probably had as much to do with developing modern half-tracks as Alvin Lombard had to do with inventing them. It isn’t surprising that Linn first became acquainted with half-tracks after purchasing a pair from Lombard, but what might be a surprise was the purpose for which these half-tracks were used… Linn owned a traveling circus! Since rural roads were mostly unpaved, one of Linn’s half-tracks was used as his personal on-the-road home, while the other pulled his circus wagons. Not only were half-tracks the first practical tracked vehicles to be invented, they were also the first snowmobiles… and a half-track was one of the world’s first motor homes! It gets even better; Linn’s half-track-powered traveling circus featured a new novelty: motion-pictures. So, half-tracks also played a role in the early movie industry!
Linn’s circus was on the road one fall when heavy rains caused a major landslide that blocked the route ahead, and even his half-tracks couldn’t get through. Linn took an alternate route, ending up in Morris, New York. Since it was the end of the show season, he rented stable space for his animals at the Morris Fairgrounds. Being an excellent mechanic as well as a circus ringmaster, he also rented a shop to tinker with and improve his Lombard half-tracks. By the time spring arrived, Linn had built his own half-track. There was so much interest in this new machine that he sold his circus and created the Linn Manufacturing Corporation.
As with the Lombard Log Hauler, Linn’s first half-tracks were intended for lumbering, construction, and plowing snow. Linn constantly worked to improve his machines, and came up with an inside-the-frame-rails track design that became the hallmark of Linn half-tracks. Linn’s tractors and trucks quickly became a success in all types of service, from pulling road graders to oil exploration. Like the Lombard Log Hauler, the Linn half-tracks were very powerful, either with gas or diesel engines. In addition to plowing snow, Linns often pulled sled trains overland to supply northern towns during winter.
Some of these trains weighed well over 100 tons, were composed of ten or more sleds, and even featured a caboose for Benjamin Holt’s bad karma returned to haunt him in the form of Holman Linn. Holt, along with several other companies now in the crawler tractor business, had been marketing their machines to the lumber industry for hauling logs; but while their full-tracked tractors were touted as being much more maneuverable than “old-fashioned half-tracks,” there are problems when track-steer tractors pull heavy loads. One of these problems is, unlike a half-track that carries part of its cargo, a full-track tractor often does not have enough weight to manage a heavy towed load, especially going downhill. Another problem inherent to full-tracked tractors is they lose half their traction when turning because one track is disengaged. This makes going downhill with a heavy towed load very dangerous. Full-tracked tractors also have a tendency to slide sideways on steep hillsides. In fact, as full-tracked tractors came into use as log-haulers, the number of accidents and operator fatalities began to mount. Nevertheless, Caterpillar and other companies continued to market their machines to loggers as “more efficient” than the half-tracks offered by Linn. However, they hadn’t taken into account that Linn had been a showman; and Linn used the accident statistics to promote the safety of half-tracks over full-tracked machines. (As a matter of fact, there had been relatively few accidents involving half-tracks compared to full-tracked crawlers.)
Linn’s half-tracks also featured a cleat design that resisted sliding sideways. Linn countered Caterpillar’s claims of greater maneuverability with the catchy phrase, “’Tis a long Linn indeed that knows no turning.” Linn was also very skilled in what would be called corporate sabotage today… there’s a story that he once exchanged movie reels at a lumberman’s convention, so instead of watching a film about Holt’s Caterpillars, the loggers were treated to a showing of Linn’s half-tracks in action!
Half-track development between the World Wars was not exclusive to the United States, though in some countries half-tracks were regarded as purely military machines. Germany, for example, humiliated after WWI and roused to dreams of revenge and “rightful conquest,” had been secretly working on half-tracks – along with other war hardware -- for many years. As the rumblings of yet another global war began to be heard in Europe, the U.S. Army started to look more closely at half-tracks and evaluate various prototypes. There had always been a few half-tracks in the Army’s non-standardized vehicle fleet between WWI and WWII, but in the latter part of the 1930s several other designs were tested, such as the Mack-Christie, G.M.C., Cunningham T4, and the Ford-Marmon-Herrington. The rather stylish Ford-Marmon-Herrington was one of only two unarmored half-tracks to go into full production for the U.S. Army prior to WWII, and possessed many features that would become standard on the armored half-tracks of WWII, including a front ditching roller and a powered front axle.
Eventually, the U.S. Army half-tracks of the 1930s evolved into the White, Autocar, and International Harvester half-tracks of WWII, of which most Historic Military Vehicle enthusiasts and readers of this magazine are familiar. Since there are thousands of photographs, as well as extensive information about U.S. half-tracks of WWII, this is as far as this early half-track history will go. Future articles will cover the half-track vehicles of WWII, both U.S. and those of other countries.
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