The Story of the Caterpillar Name

The most significant engineering innovation attributed to Benjamin Holt, one of our founders, was the invention of the first commercially successful track-type tractor – today’s dozer. This invention not only became one of our cornerstone products, but its development also led to the name we have today: Caterpillar.

The Emergence of Tracks

Ever the inventor, Holt was always looking for ways to improve his company’s products, which at the time included combine harvesters and wheeled steam tractors. Holt’s main market was agricultural fields around the San Joaquin River Valley in Northern California, and the area’s geography made it difficult to prepare for crops, as the heavy steam tractors would get stuck in the soggy peat soil. After some research, Holt instructed his mechanics to remove the rear wheels from a Holt steam tractor and replace them with a pair of tracks he had designed. On Thanksgiving Day in 1904, this tracked machine, known as No.77, was given its first field test and performed admirably.

The Origin of the Name

No.77 was tested again with an improved set of tracks in March of 1905. During this run, Benjamin and his nephew Pliny took the company photographer, Charlie Clements, out to the field to take photographs of the machine. When they got there, Clements was a little confused at first, as he did not see any wheels on the machine…yet it was moving. Clements saw the motion of the track undulating between the drive sprocket and the front idler wheel and exclaimed that the machine crawled like a big "Caterpillar.” Clements described the fateful day he first used the name that would be synonymous with earthmoving equipment for decades to come:

Nearing the Holt Ranch, we perceived a steam tractor in the distance. Benjamin Holt stated - "They are not running." Noticing the absence of the big side wheels, I said - "They are broken down," at which Pliny Holt turned around, looked at me and laughed, but said nothing. Suddenly I noticed that the outfit was moving along, but did not say anything, thinking that the engine was on board a barge going through some canal, seemingly hidden by the heavy crop of wheat barley … suddenly it came around between us and the crop of barley, and for a moment I was dumbstruck with amazement. Jumping upon my feet I exclaimed aloud - "If that don’t look like a monster caterpillar." Benjamin reddened at the remark and smilingly asked - "What makes you think that?" I answered - "Why, even a child could make no mistake. Just watch the undulating movement as it creeps along.”

Other Names Considered

Other names were considered before the company landed on Caterpillar. In fact, it was said that Benjamin Holt didn’t like the name Caterpillar at all! Originally, the machines were often referenced as “mud turtles,” in addition to:

  • platform wheels
  • railroad wheels
  • tread mill
  • paddle wheels

The Formation of “Caterpillar”

Pliny and others in the Holt family helped persuade Benjamin that “Caterpillar” was the logical choice. Eventually the name stuck, and in 1909 the first Holt tractor to wear the Caterpillar name crawled off the assembly line. In 1910 Holt registered the name “Caterpillar” as a trademark with the U.S. Patent Office. And in 1925, when Holt and Best merged to form their new tractor company, they used the name so familiar to people around the world: Caterpillar. The Caterpillar Tractor Company is today known as Caterpillar Inc., and the rest, as they say, is history. 

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