The Bulldozer: One of the Overlooked Wonders of Technology


Dr. Harrington has a Doctorate and Master’s in modern history from Oxford University and a B.A. in history from London University, and has taught, researched and published widely on themes in the history of technology. He is currently completing a book-length study of the cultural history of the bulldozer, provisionally entitled Bulldozer: On the Tracks of a Modern Machine, and is looking for a publisher who is as keen on bulldozers as he is.

The house where I grew up, in an unremarkable town in southern England, was surrounded by large Victorian and Edwardian properties in extensive gardens. At least, it was when we moved into it, in the early 1970s. Over the following years those relics of a more spacious age disappeared one by one, to be replaced by estate housing and flats. As a result I spent much of my childhood in close proximity to what was in effect a large continually active building site, and became a habitual spectator of all the noisy, dirty, often dangerous (as my parents never ceased to remind me) and sometimes spectacular things that went on there.

It was fascinating to watch one building disappear and another grow up in its place; to see workers busy at a complex multiplicity of tasks; to track the raw materials of construction as they were gradually incorporated into new structures. Above all, it was fascinating to see the machines at work, the trucks, tractors, cranes and excavators that carried, pulled, lifted and dug with tireless energy. Most spectacular of all for me were those great tracked monsters that appeared at the very beginning of the construction process and prepared the ground for all that would follow: the bulldozers.

Research in the school library and home experimentation with models and construction sets had left me very clear about what a bulldozer was: a powerful tractor moving on caterpillar tracks and fitted at the front with a large metal blade. My less well-informed friends tended to bandy the word ‘bulldozer’ about rather indiscriminately, applying it to what I knew to be lesser forms of mechanical life such as backhoe excavators and wheeled front-loaders. Such machines were all very well, but they didn’t roll on tracks like tanks, nor were they equipped with a huge gleaming blade as tall as a man. They pecked and worried at the ground with little scoops and shovels – the bulldozer forced it into submission with sheer brute force. They came rattling along when the hardest and most important work was already done, when the bulldozer had cleared and leveled the ground, readying the earth for all that followed. The work of those other machines, and all the human construction and ingenuity that went into the buildings they erected, rested upon the shoulders of giants – yellow-skinned, steel-bodied, diesel-powered, blade-wielding giants.

Those giants made a great impression upon me, perhaps greater than I realized, for when thirty years later, after having researched and written on other big technologies such as railways and ships, I began to turn my mind to a new theme in the cultural history of technology, I found that the bulldozers had been lurking, engines idling, in the back of my mind the whole time. The bulldozer project, soon, I hope, to be the bulldozer book, was born.

I had initially feared that there would be a shortage of materials on which to base an in-depth study, and that I would end up scraping together what few references and sources I could find, erecting a suitably speculative theoretical argument over the top, and sending the results into the world to be greeted by reviews beginning ‘this slim volume ….’ Such pessimism, thankfully, was misplaced: once I began looking for them, bulldozers appeared everywhere, amply justifying my initial premise that this machine is one of the key technologies of modernity, an overlooked but crucial symbol of the modern age.

The bulldozer as we know it today is a quintessentially American device, emerging in the 1920s as a mechanized version of a formerly human- or animal-powered agricultural implement which used a vertical wooden blade to smooth rough ground. The term itself was already in use to denote a type of powerful horizontal press used for shaping and bending metal, and I suspect that it is from this usage, rather than from the racist thugs known as ‘bulldozers’ who stalked the politics of the nineteenth-century American South, that the name of the machine is derived. Be that as it may, the associations of brute, overbearing force are the same in both cases, and as the bulldozer developed and took its place as one of the key tools of the twentieth century it never lost its dual significance as both emblem of modern progress and symbol of coercive violence.

It was American companies which drove the development of the bulldozer, and it was on the huge construction projects of inter-war America that it proved its worth. During the 1930s the bulldozer conquered America; with the coming of the Second World War it conquered the world, with fleets of bulldozers working to construct fortifications, highways, runways and port facilities in the European, African and, perhaps above all, the Pacific theatres of war. When U.S. Navy Admiral William F. Halsey identified the technologies that, in his opinion, had played the crucial role in winning the war against Japan, he listed four: submarines, radar, aircraft, and bulldozers. In Europe, bulldozers were in the vanguard of the Allied armies as they fought their way through Italy, and in the Normandy landings of 1944 armored bulldozers were among the first units to go ashore. Military bulldozers, driven by calmly heroic crews, rumbled fearlessly into the devastated cities of France, the Low Countries and Germany, to work at clearing roads while fighting continued around them. When one British bulldozer crew was told in February 1945 that fierce fighting in the city of Cleves made the place too dangerous for them they replied ‘we are armour’ and worked on regardless. Bulldozers rolled too across far darker landscapes: as the liberating armies reached the concentration camps, they were used to bury tens of thousands of the dead, giving rise to some of the most hauntingly terrible images of the entire war.

The military prominence of the bulldozer, reaching its logical conclusion in the hybrid ‘tankdozer’ (a tank fitted with a bulldozer blade) should not surprise us, for the machine has always inhabited a kind of hinterland where peace and war, progress and destruction interact. As the International Harvester Company declared in their wartime advertisements, under pictures of their tractors and bulldozers in military service: ‘almost nothing changed but the paint!’ Replace construction-site yellow or red with military olive drab and you have a military vehicle. Inside every bulldozer is a tank trying to get out.

In the post-war years the bulldozer was an emblem of hope, of reconstruction and progress towards a better, brighter world. Bulldozers cleared the rubble of bombed cities, leveled and restored shell-pitted farmland, built roads and labored at new construction. The bulldozer’s darker associations traveled with it, however. With its grinding caterpillar tracks, its brutish blade, its angular ugliness, it became a symbol of the insensate devastation and exploitation of the environment: bulldozers became prime targets for protestors, who sabotaged them, painted slogans on their blades, and depicted them in posters and pamphlets as mechanized monsters, the epitome of heedless destruction, the symbol of a brutal economic system that cared nothing for the well being of ordinary people or indeed of the planet itself.

This negative image was reinforced by the use of bulldozers by many governments in policing and security operations. Where shanty towns and their inhabitants had to be swept aside, where politically or socially undesirable populations had to be cleared away, where threatening topographies had to be reshaped in the name of security, the bulldozers were there, in (among many other places) apartheid South Africa, despotic Iraq, authoritarian Guatemala and development-hungry Las Vegas. Today the epitome of this image of the bulldozer is the armored Caterpillar D9 used by the Israeli Defence Forces. The use of these machines (built in the United States and fitted with their armour and other military accoutrements in Israel) in house demolitions and in support of military operations has given them a significance for Israel’s critics similar to that of whaling ships among environmentalists. ‘The bulldozer can take its place alongside the tank as a symbol of the relations Israel conducts with the Palestinians,’ the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions has declared. ‘Both should be emblazoned on the national flag. Both are an expression of the aggression that has overtaken the Israeli national experience.’ The role of the D9 in controversial incidents such as the Israeli operation in Jenin in 2002 and the death of Rachel Corrie in 2003 has made this machine a powerful, indeed a notorious, symbol of the contemporary conflict in the Middle East, and the Caterpillar Company has become for some a hated symbol of American-backed Israeli brutality.

Israel represents perhaps the most prominent contemporary example of the way in which the squat shape of the bulldozer haunts the characteristic landscapes of modernity, the hinterlands and disputed territories between war and peace, construction and destruction, peaceful progress and the violence of brute force. But in truth these ambiguities are present wherever the bulldozer rolls. It is a machine that deals with fundamentals: the earth, transformation, creation, destruction. It buries the past while it builds the future, demolishing in order to construct, leveling the ground and starting anew from a cleared and emptied landscape – it is the year-zero machine. Celebrated as an icon of social progress or despised as a symbol of destructive exploitation, hymned as a machine of liberation or feared as a tool of repression, the bulldozer has reshaped cultural perceptions as it has transformed urban and rural landscapes. To follow in its tracks is to understand the history of the modern age.

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James E Sanders - 6/24/2008

Well, I'll be! Another bulldozer lover out there! I've loved them as long as I can remember, riding with my dad on a Model 2U Cat D8 in the early 1950s and many more modern ones thereafter. He was a Navy SeaBee in the Pacific theater in WW II and operated the first Cat D 9 in this part of the country. I ran one for a few years then at my wife's request (threats) made use of a college degree and worked in government for 30 + years.

I still can watch dozers work for hours...

Andrew D. Todd - 12/31/2007

I take it you will have read Robert LeTourneau's autobiography, Mover of Men and Mountains (1960). I don't know whether this would be evident to an English ear, but to an American, it has a very strong streak of providentialism, in the seventeenth-century Puritan sense of the word. Similarly, the discussion of mules is rather curious, a cordially hated aspect of nature which looks at one and says: no, I won't, whereupon it is to be flogged into submission. LeTourneau of course had various linkages to Christian missionary activity, both in China and in the third world, and these might be significant.