What the Truck? A brief overview of the history of the semi-truck

By: Lauren Quinn Badell

In 2015, the very first autonomously driven semi-truck hit the roads.  This new technology, while still far from being approved for commercial use, has vast implications for the trucking industry in terms of increased safety, cost savings and the more tacit implication of the elimination of the human element in an industry that has existed in the United States for over a century.

But where did that industry all get started? Those of us in large cities can’t drive down the highway without seeing at least a few of the big rigs, transporting cargo to and from distances unknown. How many of us stop to think about the implications of such travel, where the cargo and the technology all came from and where it might be going, instead of just trying to drive past as fast as possible to avoid that air current shuttering your car as you drive by?

Since the advent of car production, producers struggled with the problem of how to move their cars to consumers without putting wear and miles on the cars. Early automobile designer Alexander Winton solved the problem by designing a vehicle so big that it could carry those cars. By 1915, semi-trucks were carrying both cars and boats, and in the 1930s, mail-order companies were shipping prefabricated homes by truck, as well.

Courtesy of Modern Mechanix/Public Domain

Courtesy of Modern Mechanix/Public Domain

The semi-truck also solved one of the railroad industry’s most vexing problems, one that had only grown worse with the dispersion of population away from city centers: how to get goods to small towns and rural areas not directly connected by rail.  

As technology progressed and innovations such as electric running lights and the fifth wheel allowed for overnight travel, semi-trucks could carry larger loads for longer distances and the entire shipping industry could start to rely on trucks as a means to transport just about everything in American life.

A real hero in this story is Malcolm McLean, a trucker-turned-shipping-magnate who saw that there was a better way to connect the vessels that moved across the ocean with those that moved across the land. He invented the shipping container, which revolutionized the industry in its ability to connect cargo ships, trains, and trucks.  This idea has been lauded as important as the advent of the steam engine, and we tend to agree.

All from a guy who drove a truck.