How Construction Equipment Has Evolved

How Construction Equipment Has Evolved

Construction equipment has evolved considerably in a relatively short amount of time. In less than 100 years, heavy machinery has moved from a cable-and-pully-based system to the advanced, connected equipment of today. Here's a look at how some of the most common types of construction equipment has changed over the years.

Early Construction Equipment

Many of today's machines have their roots in the 1920s, although the equipment of those days looked much different than those of modern times. In the 20s, most construction equipment used cables and pulleys and required a lot of physical effort to operate.

That began to change during World War II, which drove companies to rapidly develop the hydraulic systems that are still an important aspect of construction equipment today. Diesel engines power these hydraulic systems.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, much of the equipment we use today appeared for the first time in a form that would be recognizable to modern construction workers. Throughout these two decades, construction equipment also increased in efficiency and in the power density of their engines.

A Time of Growth

The 50s and especially the 60s were periods of exceptional growth for the heavy construction industry. One major driver of this boom in the United States was the Federal Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. This initiative authorized extensive work to build the Interstate Highway System and took about 35 years to complete.

This project led to the introduction of massive numbers of high-horsepower motor-wheel scrapers in the U.S., which were used for moving dirt to build the roadways. Other types of equipment also gained popularity during the 50s and 60s. Submersible pumps, for example, had already existed for several decades but didn't become common in the U.S. until the 50s. They then continued to gain popularity throughout the 60s as they proved that they were reliable even while fully submerged.

During the 60s, the size of construction equipment also increased significantly. Most machinery hasn't increased much in size since, except for haul trucks, which have grown to more than 400 tons over the years.

More Changes and Innovations

During the 70s and 80s, the heavy equipment sector came up with several important innovations related to powertrain and machine configuration. These innovations included the introduction of differential steering and elevated sprocket design. One major event that affected the industry during this period was the oil embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries and the resulting oil crisis. This crisis led to high demand for coal and, therefore, for large earthmoving equipment used in coal mining.

After the 80s, much of the development focused on making equipment more compact, reducing noise levels, reducing emissions, easier operation and enhanced safety. Over the years, construction equipment has also continued to become more durable and more efficient.

During the 80s, the recession led to some major changes in the heavy equipment sector. It caused a lot of the leading equipment manufacturers to either fail or consolidate. Because of this recession, most of the major heavy machinery companies of the 60s and 70s no longer exist today.

Beginning in the 90s, environmental laws became to have a significant impact on the industry. They forced manufacturers to create cleaner, more efficient engines for construction vehicles.

Another economic downturn, which began in 2008, caused a shift in the business model of the heavy machinery sector. More companies began to rent their equipment rather than purchase it.

Today and the Future

Today, there are more changes underway. Construction equipment is becoming increasingly automated and connected. Companies have begun to introduce more equipment that can move around and complete tasks autonomously. Machinery can also now be equipped with sensors that relay important information about equipment performance to construction site managers. Electric vehicles, solar power and other alternative methods of powering equipment are now also becoming more widely available.

Construction equipment has come a long way in a relatively short period. From the largely manually powered machinery of the 20s to the autonomous vehicles of today, heavy machinery has changed to become more efficient, reliable and safe.


Emily is a green tech writer who covers topics in renewable energy and sustainable design. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.

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