From An Early Automaker To Today’s Truck And Trailer Manufacturers: A Quick History of Semi-Trucks

From An Early Automaker To Today’s Truck And Trailer Manufacturers: A Quick History of Semi-Trucks

Did you have any idea that the first semi-trucks built would now be over 110 years old? If you did not, then this article will be enlightening for you. Here is a brief history of just how the semi-trucks were invented, how they became popular, and when the idea of using them to haul cargo really took off. You may be surprised just how far semi-trucks have come since their first incarnation was built in the late 19th century.

The Invention of the Semi-Truck

The semi-truck was invented in Cleveland, Ohio by a budding automaker named Alexander Winton. He first started manufacturing his “horseless carriages” in 1896 and was quite successful. This success, however, had one major downfall. Because Winton was able to sell automobiles to customers that were located far from Cleveland, he had to deliver these vehicles hundreds of miles away. It was much too expensive to drive these autos to the prospective customers, and the delivery added wear and tear and excess mileage to the vehicles.

In 1898, Winton invented the first tractor-trailer as a delivery solution. By the following year, Winston’s company was manufacturing several tractor-trailers for not only its own use, but also for sale to other car makers.

The Evolution of the Semi’s Popularity

By 1900, major freight-hauling companies, some that are still around today, came into existence. One such company out of Brooklyn, NY, ‘Mack Trucks,’ started to develop its own engines with automatic starters, eliminating the need for a hand crank. By 1904, a blacksmith from Detroit named August Charles Fruehauf invented a similar carriage to haul a boat. He named the vehicle a “semi-trailer” because with no front wheels, it can only be used with a tractor. Fruehauf and a friend beat down and bolted together a two-wheeler that he hooked to the rear of a Model-T frame. He then used a pole to act as both a break and a tongue.

Another inventor, John C. Endebrock, invented something similar in 1916. His “trailmobile” was also pulled by a Model T, but its trailer had an iron chassis. A little bit later, in 1939, one Tacoma, Washington lumber mill realized that using semi-trucks would be a profitable alternative to the horse teams and riverboats they were currently using to haul logs. They purchased surplus Army trucks and redesigned them by equipping them with trailers especially made for transporting timber. This company, ‘Peterbilt,’ is now is of the top producers of semi-trucks in the world.

The Idea Starts to Take Off

Back in 1904, the roads in the United States at any given time were home to less than 700 semi-trucks. However, by 1914, that number ballooned to 25,000, and within 10 years, the amount skyrocketed to approximately 416,569.

The big change came around 1916 with the passage of the Federal Road Aid Act, which provided $75,000,000 in federal money to match state funds to construct 6% of state roads over a five-year period. After this, the amount of semi-trucks on the road exploded. Then in 1921, the Federal Highway Act ensured that there would be over 3,000,000 miles of public roads added as part of the national road system. With more roads, more goods could be hauled from one place to another, and the trucking industry started to boom.

Up until the 1920s, semi-trucks were built for utility and not for comfort. Some of the earliest models featured rotund solid rubber wheels and had mechanical brake systems that could only travel short distances at slow speeds over dirt roads. Eventually, trailer manufacturers went into business for themselves building trailers separately, while only the truck portion was produced by the heavy-duty truck companies.

After a while, truck and trailer manufacturers started to use balloon tires, and around the same time, truck builders also developed closed cabs, which provided extra comfort for the driver that was traveling long distances. Technological advances over the next two decades included the development of hydraulic brakes and pneumatic tires, which helped increase the workload that semi-trucks could carry with ease.

Today, semi-trucks still dominate the highways and are still considered the fastest and most efficient method of delivering most commodities, especially building materials and agriculture. As the decades have passed, many advances have been made in the technology used to build trucks, and trailer manufacturers have consistently improved on their design as well. However, the basic premise and purpose of the semi-truck is still basically the same as it was when it was first created.