Equipment Type

Early Backhoe Loaders

Two trends in equipment evolution converged to create one of today’s most ubiquitous construction machines: the backhoe loader.

July 22, 2014

In the years following World War II, two trends in equipment evolution converged to create what has become one of today’s most ubiquitous construction machines— the backhoe loader.

Following their development in the 1920s, industrial wheel tractors emerged as versatile construction machines. Along with being highly practical prime movers, they could be outfitted with a wide variety of attachments and options. One of the attachments that took hold in the 1930s was a front-end loader. These early loaders were operated by cable, which gave the operator limited control of the bucket. It could be raised, lowered, and tripped for dumping, but its position could not be controlled between the loading and dumping positions. These machines were the forerunners of the wheel loaders developed by Mixermobile Manufacturers and Frank G. Hough in 1939.

The other evolutionary development was the perfecting of hydraulics as a means of powering equipment attachments. Crude hydraulic systems had been in limited use for construction machinery since the 1920s. LaPlant-Choate marketed an early hydraulic dozer, and the Gledhill Road Shaper used a manual hydraulic pump to position a system of skids that imparted a final crown on a road’s surface. But hydraulic systems were cumbersome, weak, and bulky until the mid-1940s. After the war, cylinders and pumps became more compact and efficient, leading to the development of several new varieties of construction equipment.

One of these was a small backhoe that could be mounted on the back of a tractor; it was powered by a hydraulic pump that was driven by the tractor’s power takeoff. (Badger Machine Company developed a backhoe called the Hopto—for Hydraulically Operated Power Take Off—that was towed behind the tractor; it gave rise to the Hopto line of excavators.) The tractor-mounted hydraulic backhoe was a new type of machine, one that combined mobility with two different digging functions. This would have been impossible without hydraulics, as a cable backhoe would have been impractically large for a small industrial tractor. That said, Hyster offered the Hystaway as a cable-powered excavator attachment for mid-sized to large crawler tractors.

Hydraulic loaders were also perfected following the war, and in the early 1950s an industrial tractor with a hydraulic loader on one end and a hydraulic backhoe on the other quickly emerged as a popular tool for construction and other applications. In those years, two or three manufacturers were represented in such a machine—one each for the tractor and one or both attachments. Later in the 1950s, JCB and Case developed their own loader and backhoe attachments, resulting in machines with all three components produced and warranted by a single manufacturer. Other industrial tractor manufacturers followed suit, designing their own attachments or, as did Allis-Chalmers, acquiring attachment manufacturers. The next evolutionary step, in the 1960s, was the purpose-built backhoe loader that was designed as an integral machine, rather than by mating attachments to a stand-alone tractor.

The Historical Construction Equipment Association (HCEA) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the construction, dredging and surface mining equipment industries. With more than 4,000 members in 25 countries, activities include operation of National Construction Equipment Museum and archives in Bowling Green, Ohio; publication of a quarterly magazine, Equipment Echoes, from which this text is adapted, and hosting an annual working exhibition of restored construction equipment. Individual memberships are $32 within the U.S. and Canada, and $40 elsewhere. Information is available at www.hcea.net, 419.352.5616, or info@hcea.net.

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