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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 363-364

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Book Review

Yellow Steel: The Story of the Earthmoving Equipment Industry

Yellow Steel: The Story of the Earthmoving Equipment Industry. By William R. Haycraft. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Pp. xvi+465. $34.95.

As a child in the late 1950s and 1960s, I watched with some excitement the operation of many of the machines about which William Haycraft writes, often while detouring around an interstate highway construction project encountered on a family vacation. But as Haycraft notes in his introduction, there is a dearth of good historical information on this industry that has literally reshaped the earth on which we live. Yellow Steel succeeds in filling part of that void. This is a business history that focuses on the firms, but there is also substantial information on the timing, if not the details, of the invention and operation of earthmoving machinery.

Haycraft, who spent a career in international marketing with Caterpillar, opens the book with a section that examines the various activities that have created a demand for earthmoving equipment. He discusses the standard construction projects, such as dams and roads, but also notes that the most sustained demand for moving huge quantities of earth and rock came from the mining industry--especially as machines permitted relatively inexpensive opencast mining of coal and copper. The connection between large-scale projects and the development of the machines and the companies that made them leads the author to an important comment. He notes that a crucial aspect of the industry's growth has been related to governmental support--and not just by the United States government--for large public works projects. The profitability and survival of firms in this industry is largely related to the willingness of governments to undertake big projects. Thus, for most of the twentieth century steadily rising demands for ever larger equipment nourished the profits of many leading machinery producers. The completion of the interstate highway system and the slowdown in the construction of large dams in the 1980s, however, had a significant effect on the industry, and a number of firms succumbed to these shifts and to the emergence of competition, notably from Japan.

After the general opening, Haycraft traces the earthmoving equipment industry's history in a series of chronologically structured chapters (the postwar years of 1946-56, for example, and the interstate decade, 1956-65). [End Page 363] Each chapter, in turn, comprises a series of short corporate histories. In telling what happened at each of the leading firms, the author identifies not only the technical innovations and accomplishments of each but also changes in corporate leadership, mergers, and acquisitions as well as missed opportunities and the difficulties many companies encountered. He is no apologist for the many instances of poor judgment within the industry, especially since the 1980s.

Haycraft's coverage of American firms is quite complete, ranging from Case and Cleland to Euclid, John Deere to Letourneau. The research rests largely upon annual reports and standard published summaries. More attention is devoted to Caterpillar (the author's former employer), but that choice is justified by this firm's long-standing dominance within the industry. The episodic pattern imposed by the organizational structure becomes repetitive, however, as one follows company after company through each time period, only to start over again in the next chapter. Perhaps more unfortunate was the author's decision to deal with labor issues--a vital element in the story of several large firms--in an appendix rather than as part of each corporate history.

In the end, this history of the equipment makers is more likely to be seen as a reference work. Readers will have to flip from chapter to chapter to follow the history of any given firm. Still, there is some basic technical information on the machinery itself, and the book will have some utility as a means of learning when various devices were introduced. Additionally, the primary innovations--such as caterpillar tracks, diesel engines, large pneumatic tires, and hydraulic excavators--are identified along...


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