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The History of Heavy Construction Equipment

Size and weight are not the determinants of heavy equipment: Heavy equipment consists of any type of vehicle used for heavy construction tasks, such as earthwork. There are 16 main heavy equipment vehicles:

  • Backhoe
  • Excavator
  • Dragline excavator
  • Grader
  • Bulldozer
  • Wheel tractor scraper
  • Loader
  • Trencher
  • Tower crane
  • Compactor
  • Paver
  • Forklift
  • Dump truck
  • Feller buncher
  • Pile driving machine
  • Pile boring machine

Heavy equipment is one of the largest industries in the U.S. economy.


The ancient Romans invented the predecessors to heavy equipment. One of the Romans’ most important inventions was the crane. The Roman crane could be powered by humans or animals and was used by construction workers until well into the Middle Ages.

Late 1800s

The Second Industrial Revolution in the United States was spurred by the urbanization of formerly rural areas and the rapid expansion of American territory in the West. Farmers and business owners were interested in improving agricultural efficiency, which led to the invention of new machinery. Benjamin Leroy Holt invented the combine harvester in 1880 and the steam engine tractor in 1890. In 1892, John Froelich created a gasoline-powered tractor that could be operated with both forward and reverse gears. These heavy-duty farming machines were predecessors of modern construction equipment.


At the beginning of the 20th century, agricultural equipment was gradually converted into construction machinery. Galion Iron Works, one of the biggest equipment manufacturers of the time, was founded in 1807 and produced steamrollers, motor graders, and hydraulic cranes.


Bulldozers, the antecedent to military tanks, were invented in the 1920s. They were popular with farmers because they came equipped with tools to remove tree stumps and other obstacles while flattening the terrain with their caterpillar traction mechanism. They were originally called “bull graders” until the term “bulldozer” was coined in the 1930s.


Despite the completion of some impressive construction feats, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the 1930s were a difficult time for the American construction industry. Companies did not have the resources to innovate or create new products, so they had to sell off their liquid and tangible assets during the Great Depression. These difficulties continued through wartime.


Families migrated from the cities to the suburbs during the height of the Baby Boom. This phenomenon, along with the passage of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act and the construction of the Interstate Highway System, meant that there were more construction opportunities and an increased need for heavy equipment.


It took 35 years to build the Interstate Highway System. During this period, equipment operators realized the benefits of hydraulic equipment compared to cable-operated machinery. Construction equipment, especially machines used for surface mining, became larger and more imposing.


Equipment manufacturers began focusing on safeguards for equipment operators as construction equipment became more complicated. The 1973 oil embargo re-energized the American coal industry. Consequently, compact wheel loaders and other mining equipment was in high demand.


The heavy equipment industry suffered a recession after the completion of the interstate highways. Caterpillar was the sole survivor of the four major American construction companies.


For the first time, heavy equipment manufacturers were constrained by environmental laws. The first regulations for diesel engine emissions were passed in 1996, which compelled companies to focus on the fuel efficiency of diesel engines.


The EPA passed two sets of regulations during this period related to heavy equipment. Tier 2 regulations were enacted from 2001 to 2006, while Tier 3 regulations were passed from 2006 until 2008. Heavy equipment became more expensive to operate, so construction companies shifted to renting machinery instead of purchasing it. As a result, they prized durability over innovation.


In recent years, construction machinery has been experiencing a high-growth period. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that equipment operator employment rates will increase by 10% through 2024. Companies are using technology to develop autonomous machinery, improve customer-centered solutions, and increase machines’ life cycles and uptime.