The man with the most

The man with the mostest

LETOURNEAU'S LEGACY The Dean of Earthmoving registered 299 patents.
LETOURNEAU'S LEGACY The Dean of Earthmoving registered 299 patents.

Although the man spent much of his career conjuring up the ideas that makes desert construction possible, it is easy to imagine that Robert Gilmour LeTourneau (1888-1969), would have been getting excited by the challenge of clearing the sheet of snow that fell on the northern hemisphere last month.

Although not as well-known as his contemporaries such as the visionary Henry Ford or Howard Hughes, the Dean of Earthmoving deserves his position in the pantheon of great US engineers and one of PMV’s most influential founders.

Born in the chilly north-eastern state of Vermont, it took moves to the west coast states of Oregon and California
for LeTourneau to find the inspiration that would turn him into one of the US’ great inventors.

His career began in earnest when he started as an apprentice iron monger at the Portland Iron Works. He later became joint-owner of a garage in Stockton, but was called up to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, during World War I. At the end of the war, he returned to find the business had defaulted and was saddled in debt.

Forced to repay his debts, he found employment levelling 40 acres (160,000m2) using a Holt tractor and a towed scraper. By May 1921, he had an workshop in Stockton and was designing and building scrapers as well as running a contracting business.

He and his company were soon crucial to the rapid development of the western US (LeTourneau helped create the Boulder Highway to Hoover Dam in Nevada, the Marysville Levees, Orange County Dam and the Newhall Cut-off).

Defying percieved wisdom LeTourneau leaned away from contracting and focused his attention on earthmoving equipment in the early 1930s, kick starting one of the most prolific periods of inventions the industry had ever seen. While LeTourneau’s role in the First World War, was a minor one, by the end of the Second World War, LeTourneau is estimated to have built 70% of the heavy equipment used by the allies, with 78 of his inventions used during the conflict.

He registered 299 patents in his life, such as bull-dozers, scrapers, dredgers, portable cranes, rollers, dump wagons, bridge spans, logging equipment, mobile sea platforms, the electric wheel, and many others.

LeTourneau was a true visionary, and often bucking perceived wisdom with his ideas. He was the first to build a two-wheeled tractor coupled with a scraper for high-speed earthmoving. And was the first to develop all-wheel electric drive machines for a wide range of uses in heavy construction work.

In his brilliant time capsule of a book, Mover of Men and Mountains, he recalled how manufacturers thought he was mad to attempt to fit large machines like scrapers with their own tyres.

“When I presented them with their own theories on low pressure tyres as applied to my business, they gave me the usual verdict. I was crazy.”

Retreating from running his business in later years, he still sat at his design board on a daily basis and remained one of the industry’s great thinkers; prophesising the massive machines we see today.

“Construction machinery will grow bigger and bigger, and more and more powerful. Instead of ‘tons’ of capacity, they’ll be in ‘hundreds of tons’, and instead of hundreds of horsepower, they’ll all be rated in ‘thousands’ of horsepower,” he wrote two years before his death.

“We’re already seeing it in big hauling units in the mines, and believe me, when the contractor and mining companies start looking for bigger and more profitable hauling units and earthmoving equipment, I’m going to be right there, the firstest with the mostest.”

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