Semi-trucks keep the US economy moving and are responsible for transporting 71.8% of our nation’s freight. The trucking industry has evolved over the decades and larger shifts have influenced this evolution. In turn, truck driving has played a role in many historical events.
Here is a brief overview of trucking history:
Late 1800s and Early 1900s – The First Semi-Trucks
In 1898, Alexander Winton built the first semi-truck. Winton was a Scottish immigrant and the owner of the Winton Motor Carriage Company in Cleveland. His company sold automobiles, which were called “horseless carriages” at the time. Customers sometimes lived far away from Cleveland, so Winton had to find a way to get their vehicles to them without causing damage or adding mileage.
To solve this problem, he created an early version of a flatbed semi-truck. The horseless carriage would be on a platform and attached to another vehicle in the front. In 1899, Winton sold his first semi-truck.
In 1914, Detroit blacksmith August Charles Fruehauf took semi-trucks to the next level. He used his vehicles for hauling lumber and started the Fruehauf Trailer Company in 1918. The semi-trailer design allowed trucks to haul more types of freight, but railroads were still the dominant method of shipping at the time.
1910s – World War I
During the same time when Fruehauf was manufacturing his first semi-trailers, World War I was raging in Europe. The United States sent semi-trucks overseas and the military used these vehicles for a variety of operations. The war brought about significant improvements in tractor-trailer design, such as air-filled (pneumatic) tires instead of the rough all-rubber tires that were common prior to this time.
1930s – ATA, Motor Carrier Act, and Reefers
By the start of the 1930s, there were over 300,000 semi-trucks in operation in the United States.
In 1933, two organizations (the American Highway Freight Association and the Federation Trucks Associations of America) combined to create the American Trucking Associations (ATA). This organization is still around today and advocates for the interests of the trucking industry.
The Motor Carrier Act of 1935 introduced the first trucking regulations. These included weight limits and caps on hours of service.
Near the end of the decade in 1938, Minnesota trucking executive Harry Werner lost a shipment of chicken due to a truck breakdown. At this time, companies shipped agricultural products with ice and any issues or delays could result in the entire load spoiling. This event prompted Werner to invent the refrigerated truck, more commonly known today as a reefer.
1940s – World War II and Post-War Boom
As was the case during World War I, semi-trucks played a role in World War II. By 1942, there were 125,000 truckers enlisted in all branches, transporting materials for the war effort.
After the war, many Americans had more wealth than ever before and were spending it on luxury goods. Since these items needed to travel across the country, trucking continued to expand. Advancements in the diesel engine and the creation of new roads both helped spur this growth. This is also when the first truck stops began to pop up around the nation.
1950s – 1960s – Highway Construction and the DOT
In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. This began the creation of a nationwide system of highways. As a result, semi-trucks could travel more efficiently.
With the creation of highways, there was a need for oversight in the trucking industry. The Department of Transportation (DOT) was created in 1967.
1970s – 1980s Trucking in Popular Culture
During the 70s and 80s, trucking became more prominent in popular culture. Movies such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Convoy (1978) came out, as well as songs including Alabama’s “Roll On 18-Wheeler” and Eddie Rabbit’s “Driving My Life Away.”
Truck driving continues to adapt to the times. During the COVID-19 pandemic, truckers continued to deliver freight and keep our nation moving forward. New technology has made semi-trucks more comfortable and safer than ever before and there continues to be a steady demand for new truckers to enter the industry.
Become a Trucker
If you are interested in becoming a professional driver, HDS Truck Driving Institute (HDS truck driving school) can help you get started. With our program, you can earn your commercial driver’s license (CDL) and find a rewarding trucking job.