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Trucking Through The Ages: A Brief History of the Truck Driving Industry and its Trailblazers

Brief History of Truck Driving

Trucks keep our lives running every single day. They’re used for moving essential goods like construction materials, food, and medical equipment — and these days, they deliver millions of, less essential, retail goods. Like, that new pair of sunglasses you finally decided to buy for your vacation next month, or that perfect anniversary gift for your spouse that DEFINITELY needs to be delivered on-time. But how did trucking get started? And who made the industry what it is today?? Let’s take a brief tour through trucking history to find out:

The inception of truck driving: how the trucking industry began

When the first trucks were used, they were horse-drawn. In fact, if you were to meet a truck driver in 1910, he would probably be driving a horse and carriage instead of an 18-wheeler (or even one with two wheels). However, by the time World War I broke out in 1914, there were already some early models of what we now call semis: large trailers pulled by tractors and driven by drivers behind the scenes. These vehicles played an important part in transporting goods back and forth during war times.

In the 1940s, after World War II ended, there was a trucking boom taking course. Semi-trucks hit the road with diesel engines attached to them instead of gasoline engines like those found on cars at that time; this was due largely in part because gasoline was scarce during this period due to rationing while diesel fuel was less restricted.

This massive trucking boom led to truck stops popping up, offering essential fuel to drivers all over the country. These truck stops gave truckers across the nation access to both unleaded fuel AND, yep, you guessed it, diesel. This meant long-distance trips could be undertaken without truckers having to worry about running out of gas in the middle of a deserted highway or on their way back home after a long few weeks away on the road.

Driving change: a brief timeline of industry-impacting trucking trailblazers

There are dozens of notable names in the trucking industry, but for time’s sake, we’ve listed just a handful of trucking industry trailblazers in chronological order below:

  • Gottlieb Daimler– In 1896, this inventor converted a horse-drawn cart to be fitted with a rear-mounted, four-horsepower, two-cylinder engine he’d designed from a modified passenger car engine — this became the world’s first truck.
  • Alexander Winton– Founded and created the first-ever trucking company in 1897 called Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland.
  • Otto Neumann and August Fruehauf– A blacksmith and a Wagon-maker were both responsible for inventing the very first semi-trailer in 1914.
  • Frederick McKinley Jones– Revolutionized the trucking industry forever in 1937 by inventing the first portable air-cooling unit, also referred to as a refrigeration unit, which made it possible to transport medical supplies, food, and other perishable goods for long distances.
  • Mario Palazzetti– Invented the first fully electronic anti-lock braking system, which eventually became required for all semi-trucks to have in 1997. This has significantly reduced the number of jackknife crashes, in the last few decades.
  • Gladys West– A mathematician and computer instructor, who was put in charge of projects at Seasat, an experimental oceanic satellite surveillance system in 1978. This work led her to determine the exact shape of the Earth (called a geoid), which paved the way for accurate GPS calculations around the globe.
  • Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi– Founders of Qualcomm; a company that provides contract research and development services. While heading Qualcomm, they developed a wireless, two-way messaging and positioning system that would enable trucking firms to closely track their drivers’ progress across their routes while enabling drivers and dispatchers to send messages to each other to be distributed through their company. The technology was named OmniTRACS; it was released in 1989. Their invention has left a lasting impact on the way semi-truck drivers navigate the open road.

We’ve explored the inception of the trucking industry, as well as some of the biggest names that have brought trucking from its humble beginnings to where it is today. The technology used by truck drivers has changed dramatically over the years. In addition to technological innovations, driving styles, policies and procedures are constantly being updated to meet the needs of various industries and locations all over the world.

Although the past can provide valuable insight into what could be possible for the future of trucking, it’s important to reflect on how much each era was defined by the people who lived in it. What we do know is, the trucking industry is one that has seen tremendous growth over the past century, and it doesn’t appear to be hitting the brakes any time soon.