Best Faces Forward

March 27, 2007

Inventors, engineers, business managers and government officials have moved the transportation industry forward in the 100 years of Roads & Bridges’ existence.

One of the critical turning points for construction equipment happened in 1904, just before the launch of Roads & Bridges. Benjamin Holt of what became Caterpillar Inc. demonstrated the use of his Traction Engine, which used tracks to disperse weight over a wider area and kept tracked farm tractors from sinking into the soft, muddy ground of California the way wheeled tractors did.

Inventors, engineers, business managers and government officials have moved the transportation industry forward in the 100 years of Roads & Bridges’ existence.

One of the critical turning points for construction equipment happened in 1904, just before the launch of Roads & Bridges. Benjamin Holt of what became Caterpillar Inc. demonstrated the use of his Traction Engine, which used tracks to disperse weight over a wider area and kept tracked farm tractors from sinking into the soft, muddy ground of California the way wheeled tractors did.

Benjamin Holt was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., in February.

“Holt invented the tracks, but he also set the standard for innovation and quality that all of Team Caterpillar aspires to in 2006 and beyond,” said Robert T. Williams, Caterpillar vice president with responsibility for the company’s flagship Track-Type Tractors Division.

Holt was granted 47 patents in his career. His nephew Pliny Holt received 38 patents. Holt Manufacturing Co. merged with C.L. Best Tractor Co. in 1926, forming the Caterpillar Tractor Co. Daniel Best had 42 patents to his name, and his son C.L. Best, the first chairman of Caterpillar, had 27 patents. To date, Caterpillar has been granted over 6,800 U.S. patents.

The early years

There have been many people like Benjamin Holt who have driven the transportation industry forward. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) honored 100 of these people in the book America’s Top 100 Private Sector Transportation Design & Construction Professionals of the 20th Century.

One of the people ARTBA profiled was Vincent P. Ahearn Sr. (1896-1967), who worked with President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the creation of the Interstate Highway System bill and the Highway Trust Fund.

Speaking of patents, Harry H. Barber (1878-1948), co-founder of the Barber-Greene Co. shortly after the first Federal-Aid Road Act in 1916, compiled 70 patents during his career for his inventions in construction and material-handling equipment. Barber developed bucket loaders, vertical-boom ditchers and belt conveyors in the early 20th century. In 1931, he invented what is considered the first functional bituminous concrete paver, or the “traveling plant.” He also is considered an innovator of the continuous-mix asphalt plant, which later led to the modern drum-mix asphalt plants.

A person certainly does not have to accumulate patents to be influential. George S. Bartlett (1858-1945) became renowned as the “Apostle of Concrete” by tirelessly promoting the benefits of concrete roads, according to ARTBA. In 1909, he established experimental stretches of concrete, working with the Board of Road Commissioners of Wayne County, Mich., and the University Portland Cement Co. He was an energetic and innovative promoter of concrete between the world wars.

Later in the century, Ned W. Bechthold (1937- ) and his contracting company, Payne & Dolan Inc., Waukesha, Wis., became one of the first in the U.S. to test stone-matrix asphalt after a fact-finding mission to Europe. Bechthold took the controls at Payne & Dolan in 1959. The company was an early adopter of the reclamation and recycling of asphalt and concrete pavement. Under Bechthold, Payne & Dolan was among the first to place the new Superpave mixes in Wisconsin.

Not all transportation pioneers were men. Ethel A. Birchland helped lead the industry through the growth of a national roadbuilding program following several Federal-Aid Road Acts in the 1920s. Birchland was the first woman to lead a national construction association, the American Road Builders Association (ARBA), of which she was secretary from 1924 until 1929.

In good company

At the dawn of the 20th century—in fact just before it—William Phelps Eno (1858-1945) saw the need for codified regulations for some of the traffic control measures we take for granted today, such as rules for driving, pavement markings, signs, driver hand signals, driver licensing and speed limits. He developed the first city traffic code in the world for New York City in 1903. He also developed the first automobile-era traffic plans for New York City, London and Paris. He created the Eno Foundation for Highway Traffic Control in 1921 and in 1926 published the landmark book Fundamentals of Highway Traffic Regulation.

In the realm of engineering in the early 20th century, William Barclay Parsons (1859-1932) stands out. He founded Parsons Brinckerhoff in 1885 and oversaw the design and construction of New York City’s first subway, which opened in 1904. Parsons oversaw numerous major projects, such as the Steinway Tunnel for New York’s rapid transit and the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts. He also was an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt on the Panama Canal.

Henry M. Brinckerhoff (1868-1949) is credited with being the co-inventor of the third rail, which would be used by city rail transit trains and was demonstrated at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Brinckerhoff also is recognized for his innovative work in the development of early railways and subways. In 1906, he joined William Barclay Parsons to form Parsons Brinckerhoff, now one of the oldest continuously operating engineering firms in the country.

Karl Terzaghi is a name that many people may not know, but in the world of soil mechanics, he was huge. Terzaghi’s “effective stress principle” led to a fundamental understanding of the characteristics of soil, how it settles, its strength, its permeability and its erosion. He set the methods and procedures for what is now called geotechnical engineering and became known as the “father of soil mechanics.” Terzaghi (1883-1963) disseminated his research findings by teaching at universities and giving lectures for the public. He became a soils consultant to the Bureau of Public Roads, the precursor to the Federal Highway Administration, during the 1920s. The Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers honors Terzaghi by giving an annual award in his name for contributions to soil mechanics and earthwork and by sponsoring the annual Karl Terzaghi Lecture given by a distinguished engineer.

People with a long memory will recognize the Highway Research Board (HRB) as the precursor to today’s Transportation Research Board. One of the people behind the HRB was Roy W. Crum (1885-1951), who served as its director for 23 years. Crum earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Iowa State University and had a long association with the university, including teaching there for 12 years.

Sheldon G. Hayes Sr. is a name well known in the roadbuilding industry. He was the pioneering force behind asphalt paving in the mid-20th century. He contributed to the 1955 founding of the National Bituminous Concrete Association, which was renamed a decade later the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA). Hayes (1895-1985) was the first president of the new association and led it and the industry in promoting asphalt paving. NAPA now honors Hayes with the Sheldon G. Hayes Award, the association’s highest award for construction of an asphalt pavement.

Concrete paving had its own innovators in the middle of the century. James W. Johnson and Bert Myers changed the industry in 1946 when they designed the first slipform concrete paver. Until then, concrete had been laid in temporary forms assembled by hand. Johnson’s and Myers’ slipform paver was pulled forward by a mixer truck.

Interstates must roll

Along with engineering and materials, roads have needed advocates, and at mid-century William Randolph Hearst Jr. (1908-1993), chairman of Hearst Newspapers, fit the bill. Hearst was so sure a deficient road system would hold back the country’s economy that in 1952 he assigned a managing editor of The Detroit Times to cover nothing but the need for better roads. In just under three years, Hearst papers published about 1,200 pages of stories about the need for better highways.

Among the people influential in the creation of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was Francis V. Du Pont, who was an advisor shaping the views of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Charles D. “Cap” Curtiss rose to commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads until in October 1956 the first federal highway administrator, John A. Volpe, took office. Curtiss initiated the interstate highway program immediately after President Eisenhower signed the act and stayed with the Bureau of Public Roads responsible for day-to-day operations until his retirement in December 1957. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. from Tennessee, Rep. George H. Fallon from Maryland and Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana all helped craft the legislation and steer it through Congress.

Francis C. Turner was appointed executive secretary of the Clay Committee by President Eisenhower. Turner provided the information the committee needed for its deliberations. From there he served as liaison between the Bureau of Public Roads and the Congressional committees that were drafting the interstate highway act.

Turner played an essential role in getting interstate construction under way. He served as deputy commissioner, chief engineer and then director of public roads from 1957 to 1969. Previously, Turner had expedited completion of the Alaska Highway through Canada from the lower U.S. to Alaska, and on the interstate projects he resolved disputes and kept construction on track. He dedicated himself to keeping the interstate program moving as federal highway administrator, to which he was appointed in 1969.

From a start as an abrasives engineer at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., Harry Heltzer (1911- ) made a name for himself in 1939 when he and Philip V. Palmquist and colleagues created the first reflective vertical sheeting utilizing glass bead optics. Traffic control devices have been saving lives on roadways around the world ever since using their glass bead optics. Reflective technology went on to become the industry standard, and Heltzer went on to become CEO of 3M.

Holly Cornell (1914-1997) co-founded CH2M with a couple of his Oregon State University classmates and their engineering professor. In 1971, the company merged with Clair A. Hill & Associates to form CH2M Hill. Among Cornell’s accomplishments is that he opened and managed the Seattle office of CH2M Hill and later served as president and chairman.

Much has been written in the past few years about Eugene C. Figg Jr. since his death in 2002. Born in 1936, he was an early and staunch advocate of concrete segmental bridges. Through the engineering firm he founded, he created bridge designs renowned for their creativity and aesthetic appeal as well as their affordability and durability. His landmark bridges set records for span length and first-of-its-kind engineering. Three of his bridges received the Presidential Award through the National Endowment for the Arts.

J. Don Brock, Ph.D., (1938- ) is another patent holder for construction machinery, with more than 90 U.S. patents. His company, Astec Industries Inc., of which he is the chairman, president and CEO, holds about 200 U.S. and foreign patents. He founded the company in 1972, and it now manufactures asphalt mixing plants and recycling equipment, mobile asphalt paving equipment, heat transfer equipment and aggregate processing equipment.

May the next hundred years of Roads & Bridges be as filled with exciting events and interesting people as the last hundred.

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