The road to now

| May 01, 2007

America’s earliest truckers drove machines that demanded tough drivers and offered no frills. This 1912 chain-driven Brockway demanded a lot of arm and leg strength for steering and stopping.

In 1900 the truck was an oddity. Railroads and horse-drawn wagons hauled freight. But by the end of the 1930s the semi-trailer was becoming the dominant long-hauler of goods, and trucks had changed the way Americans worked and lived.

The first motorized truck hit the road in America in 1898, just two years after the first automobile. Names we still recognize and see on the road were among our first truck makers. Autocar made its first truck in 1899 and Mack in 1900 (it was a bus converted to a truck), White in 1902 and Ford in 1903.

They were odd contraptions at best, small and slow. They weighed 5 tons or less, and the engine was beneath the seat in most cases. The brakes were applied by hand or foot using a lever and raw muscle power, and the steering wheel was on the right side of the cab.

In the first 10 years of the 20th century the use of draught horses to pull freight actually increased, and trucks worked only on inner-city roads.

The earliest trucks were powered by steam, electricity (from batteries) or gasoline. A 500-pound electric truck could run at a top speed of 18 miles per hour, and heavier trucks made just 10 mph.

Steam was considered the most efficient source of power for early trucks, offering the most horsepower and torque, thus the ability to haul heavier loads. But steam power had been pioneered in ships, and some of those vessels had exploded spectacularly, bringing sensational front-page newspaper coverage. A lack of clean, uncontaminated water also hampered steam trucks, which were put out of service without it.

Electric trucks were popular because they could stop and start easily, a major plus for inner-city work. But their drivers constantly needed to recharge the batteries, leading to inconsistent or unpredictable service.

Almost by default, gasoline, long considered the least likely to succeed, would come to be the chosen power.

Road to good roads
Trucking was slow to develop as an industry at first because most roads outside inner cities were dirt or gravel bone shakers that turned to mud in winter and dust in summer. They were rutted, pitted and uneven.

Roads in Europe, by contrast, were far more developed, and it was on that continent that trucks first made inroads hauling freight. In London 8,000 trucks were being used in 1894. In the United States in 1904 there were only 410 trucks at work. But an explosion was coming – by 1911 there would be 20,000 working trucks in the U.S.

A push for better roads had actually begun in the 1880s and ’90s. But it didn’t come from automobile or truck users. It came from people riding bicycles. Americans from almost all walks of life saw in this amazing new contraption the chance for personal travel freedom.

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