Trucking in the United States has a long and varied history. The history of trucking is remarkably bound up with the economic and political history of the country. Before the advent of automotive vehicles, the majority of American freight was transported using horse-drawn wagons, trains, and boats. In the early 20th century, trucks resembled motorized wagons more than their current incarnation. These automotive wagons were built after the designs of horse-drawn carriages. Trucks lacked noses at the fronts of their cabs. As well, truck engines were stored directly underneath the driver’s side seat. Since most roads were unpaved, trucks often utilized solid rubber tires. This made their journeys slow and difficult, and left trucking as a niche until later improvements.
The Birth of Modern Trucking
Just before the First World War, there were approximately 10,000 trucks operating in the United States. Many of these trucks were used for deliveries in or near major metropolitan areas. In those days, a truck could drive from New York City to Seattle in about a month. Toward the early 1920s, trucks began to be equipped with air-filled (pneumatic) tires that made travel faster and easier. This drastically improved the speed and efficiency of the country’s shipping and transportation sectors. This increased practicality began to make a major dent in the railroad industry’s operations. While rail transport was generally less expensive, trucking had become a better choice for quicker deliveries. It was also during the 1920s that the federal government heavily invested in new paved road construction and improving existing roadways.
The First Semi-trailers
It did not take long after the advent of trucks for vehicles to be equipped with electric running lights. First introduced in 1912, running lights enabled truckers to drive at night. This cut travel times by significant margins since previously truckers had had to sleep through the night and restrict travel to daylight hours. During the 1920s, the fifth wheel came about and further upgraded the speed of pickups and deliveries. Around this time is also when the semi-trailer gained popularity. Semi-trailers contributed to better ways of managing and transporting cargo and freight.
The Emergence of Modern Trucking
By the 1930s, trucking had fully established itself as a vital part of the economy. Trucks had already been used by the military in the First World War. However, paved roads led to new attention and new regulations. The construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 1960s accelerated the growth of trucking by linking together the country’s major population centers. Some trucks began to use refrigerated trailers powered by propane, allowing an efficient method for transporting frozen goods.
Trucking came to cultural prominence by the 1970s. It was in this decade and the one prior that many films and songs about trucking became popular. Truckers were instrumental in strikes against rising fuel costs during the energy crises of the 1970s. By the 1980s, trucking had become the most important part of the freight industry. The amount of cargo had grown such that truckers were on the nation’s highways at every hour of every day.
Trucking also became a key factor in big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. With the advent of these corporate networks, the number of goods being transported grew exponentially. The Loadbar was soon invented to prevent damage to shipped goods by blocking and bracing cargo. Pallets, crates, and other items began to be more efficiently secured. As well, increased attention to environmental consciousness, fuel efficiency, and cost-effectiveness continued to emerge. By this time, trucking as it is known today had finally emerged.