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The First Semi Truck Was Invented 122 Years Ago To Transport The Earliest US Cars

Gizmodo Australia logo Gizmodo Australia 27/04/2020 Justin T. Westbrook
a red truck parked on the side of a road: Graphic: Justin Westbrook © Graphic: Justin Westbrook Graphic: Justin Westbrook

In 1898, automobiles were still pretty new and pretty hot. In our laziest glory, the U.S. had invented a motorised way of moving ourselves around, but there was a problem. How do you transport the giant motorised machine you just invented? Well, you just make a bigger machine.

And that’s exactly what Alexander Winton did when he invented the first “semi truck” all the way back at the end of the 19th Century, which is mind blowing to try and comprehend.

The story goes that Winton was perfectly happy building cars to sell to people in his home state of Ohio, but realised he could reach more customers if he had some way of easily transporting his product. He didn’t want any wear-and-tear on his new cars before they got to customers, though, so he had to figure out something that didn’t involve driving them.

Winton came up with a way of loading the car onto a flat cart, which he modified to sit on top of the engine of a modified truck platform, according to Nationwide United. The connection was supposedly similar to the removable gooseneck on trucks today. The setup could only transport one car at a time, and it required at least three people to load and unload the vehicle being transported.

Eventually, the carts were used to load other goods to too. Here’s how the setup looked:

a man riding a horse drawn carriage

A year later, Winton started manufacturing slightly modified purpose-built “semi trucks” (which he named the contraption) alongside his regular automobiles.

But pretty soon Winton would fall behind, failing to innovate and inspiring others to take the concept of the semi truck even further. Individuals like George Cassens, who came along and made trailers with higher carrying capacities. By the 1920s, trucking was booming.

It’s impossible to say for certain that Winton’s vehicle is for sure the first time one motorised vehicle was used to freely transport another motorised vehicle, or that it was even the first vehicle of its type. Putting a cart on an automobile is not such a complicated idea, and it’s likely many individuals around the world had already done something similar or were working on similar ideas.

It’s also important to note much earlier inventions, like Cugnot’s automobile, were capable of towing and transporting both things and people over a century before Winton got his idea. Winton only comes in when tracking down when cars first started being used to move other cars.

But it’s fascinating to me to think that, before the 20th Century had even started, we’d already commercialized the automobile to a point where there was enough demand to necessitate the invention of even bigger automobiles just to transport automobiles.

You can see the rapid innovation of the concept by 1905, when custom automobiles were being used all over the world to transport cars. This photo shows the Maxwell-Briscoe truck (one of these guys had already bought and sold Buick from David Buick, by the way), which was used to transport race cars.

a vintage photo of a truck: Photo: Getty Images © Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

Around this time, Maxwell-Briscoe was putting a four-cylinder L-head engine in its cars, which only made around 33 horsepower. Think about that for a moment in the photo above! All of that moving under 33 HP.

The photo’s caption says the truck was “first used at the Vanderbilt Cup Race.” I picked this photo because it caught my attention on Getty. It’s not clear what the first motorised race car transporter setup was like. Maxwell-Briscoe’s operation was eventually bought out and started building Chryslers in the mid-1920s.

But in just a few years, those guys had taken Winton’s concept and created what’s instantly recognisable as an early flatbed truck. That’s incredible.

So this Winton guy must be an American hero, then, for inventing the semi-truck? What would modern America be without it? The trucking industry has become an essential business, especially clear now more than ever. But it turns out this Winton guy wasn’t just a one-trick pony.

He also built one of the first American diesel engines, which he famously drove to New York City with a reporter, the stories of which are believed to have popularised the “automobile” moniker and he went on to invent one of the first motorised mail carrier trucks for the U.S. postal service—all in the same year!

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