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Robert Gilmour LeTourneau: November 30, 1888–June 1, 1969

Robert Gilmour LeTourneau was a prolific American, businessman & inventor of earth moving machinery and the founder of LeTourneau Technologies, Inc. His factories supplied machinery which represented nearly 70 percent of the earth moving equipment and engineering vehicles used by the Allied forces during World War II, and more than half of the 1,500-mile Alcan Highway in Canada was built with LeTourneau equipment. Over the course of his life he secured nearly 300 patents relating to earth moving equipment, manufacturing processes and machine tools.

The LeTourneau name became synonymous with earth moving worldwide. LeTourneau was largely responsible for the invention and development of many types of earth moving machines now widely used. He designed and built machines using technology that was years, sometimes decades, ahead of its time and became recognized worldwide as a leader in the development and manufacture of heavy equipment.

Throughout his career, he was the recipient of more than 30 awards and honors related to engineering, manufacturing, and the development of heavy equipment.

LeTourneau’s ingenuity is credited with: the innovative use of rubber tires in earth moving; numerous improvements relating to scrapers; the development of low-pressure, heavy-duty rubber tires; the two-wheeled tractor unit (“Tournapull”); electric wheel drive; and mobile offshore drilling platforms.

With the help of his wife, the late Evelyn Peterson (1900-1987), he founded LeTourneau University, a private, Christian institution, in Longview, Texas. LeTourneau was widely known as a devout Christian and generous philanthropist to Christian causes, including the “LeTourneau Christian Center” camp and conference grounds in Rushville, New York and Georgia Baptist Conference Center in Toccoa, Georgia. LeTourneau was often referred to by his contemporaries as “God’s businessman.”

LeTourneau was born on November 30, 1888 in Richford, Vermont; the son of Caleb T. and Elizabeth (Lorimer) LeTourneau. After his primary education he learned mechanics and engineering through correspondence courses. In his late teens he lived in San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake. During the rebuilding of the city, he was first introduced to the welding torch, which became his favorite tool. Later he was one of the first industrialists to make welding a universally accepted process. Throughout his career he was recognized as one of the pioneers in constructing machines entirely by welding rather than with rivets.

LeTourneau left school in 1902, at the age of fourteen. He moved from Vermont to Duluth, Minnesota, then to Portland, Oregon, where he began to work as an apprentice ironmonger at the East Portland Iron Works. While learning the foundry and machinist trades, he also studied mechanics from an International Correspondence Schools course that had been given to him, though he never completed any of the required course assignments.

In 1909, at age twenty-one, R. G. moved to Stockton, California, where he began a dirt-moving business and built his own scrapers. He built the first all-welded scraper with electric motors to adjust the blade, and he invented the bulldozer blade that attached to the front of a Caterpillar tractor. In 1932 he used rubber tires instead of steel wheels for the first time on heavy equipment when a customer complained that steel wheels sank in the sand.

He took an automobile correspondence course granting himself a “Bachelor of Motorcycles” as he learned about vehicle mechanics and graduated by taking apart and putting back together his newly acquired motorcycle in a day. After working on a project to build a bridge across the Stanislaus River and seeing first hand the Fresno scraper, he was anxious to put to use his mechanical skills. In 1911, LeTourneau started the Superior Garage, in Stockton, as half-owner putting up $1,000 and building what may have been the first building designed exclusively for the sales and servicing of cars in that section of California. In 1917, he married Evelyn Peterson, the daughter of a draying company owner from Minnesota.

LeTourneau was ineligible for military service because of permanent neck injuries he sustained in an earlier car-racing accident. During World War I, he worked as a maintenance assistant at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, in Vallejo, California; where he was trained as an electrical machinist and continued to improve his welding skills. After the war when LeTourneau returned to Stockton, he discovered the Superior Garage business had failed. To repay his portion of the debts, he took a job repairing heavy equipment a Holt Manufacturing Company crawler-tractor and was subsequently employed by the tractor owner to level 40 acres of ground using the tractor and a towed scraper.

This type of work appealed to LeTourneau, and in January 1920 he purchased a used Holt tractor; and with a hired scraper, began business as a regrading contractor. In May 1921, he purchased a plot of land in Stockton and established an engineering workshop, where he designed and built several types of scrapers. Combining contracting and earth moving equipment manufacturing, his business expanded and in 1929 incorporated in California as “R.G. LeTourneau, Inc.”

LeTourneau completed many earth moving projects during the 1920s and early 1930s, including the Boulder Highway to the Hoover Dam in Nevada, the Marysville Levees, Orange County Dam and the Newhall Cut-off in California. In 1933, LeTourneau retired from contracting to devote all of his attention to the manufacturing of earth moving equipment. In 1935, he built a manufacturing plant in Peoria, Illinois. The continued expansion of his business saw the establishment of manufacturing plants in Toccoa, Georgia in 1938, Rydalmere, New South Wales, Australia in 1941, Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1942, and in Longview, Texas in 1945.

R.G. LeTourneau, Inc. was later sold to Marathon Manufacturing Company in 1972, to Rowan in 1994, and to Joy Global in 2011 which was acquired by and renamed to Komatsu Mining Corp.

LeTourneau applied his ingenuity to the development of the electric wheel drive concept. In 1958, at the age of seventy, LeTourneau re-entered the earth moving equipment manufacturing business, offering contractors a range of high capacity earth moving, transportation, and material handling machines based on the revolutionary electric wheel drive system he had developed. An electric wheel drive is also called an electric wheel hub motor.

In 1953 he sold his earth-moving business to Westinghouse Air Brake Corporation; thereafter his plants constructed logging, construction, road, mining, and oilwell drilling equipment. Most notably, LeTourneau designed and built mobile platforms for offshore drilling. He was referred to often as “God’s Businessman” because he dedicated 90 percent of his company stock to the LeTourneau Foundation, which sponsored Christian missions in South America and Africa and financed LeTourneau Technical Institute from its founding in 1946 until 1961. He also was a pioneer in establishing an industrial chaplaincy for his employees. He traveled each weekend to speak to large audiences about the advantages of applying Christian principles in everyday life.

In 1965, I.C.S. finally awarded LeTourneau his diploma in engineering, 50 years after he studied the course. LeTourneau was 76 at the time and in accepting the diploma, jovially remarked to executive assistant, Nels Stjernstrom: “So now I’ve got a diploma. Now I’m educated.”

In 1966, at age 77, LeTourneau handed over presidency of his company, LeTourneau Technologies to his son, Richard. LeTourneau continued to work each day and could be found at the drawing board in his modest office, designing new ways to move larger loads faster and more economically.

LeTourneau held many respected positions throughout his life as a Christian layman, including as a leader in the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church, president of the Christian Business Men’s Committee (CBMC) and president of the Gideons International. For 30 years he flew thousands of miles each week to maintain Christian speaking engagements around the United States and overseas.

LeTourneau set aside 90 percent of his salary and company profits for religious donations, living on the other 10 percent. “You have made the word of God a glorious, practical reality,” radio program host Robert Ripley told LeTourneau, then turned to the audience with his own trademark flourish. “And of such is the work of faith… believe it or not.”

LeTourneau was a firm believer in the effectiveness of practical instruction combined with classroom studies. In 1946, he purchased an unused military hospital along with the accompanying land and buildings in Longview, Texas. There he established the LeTourneau Technical Institute at the site of the former Harmon General Hospital to provide sound technical and mechanical training, traditional college courses and training for missionary technicians, based on the philosophy of combining work, education, and Christian testimony. The LeTourneau Technical Institute became a college in its own right, in 1961 and eventually gained “university” status to become LeTourneau University.

In 1953, LeTourneau began a development project in the country of Liberia, West Africa, with the diverse goals of colonization, land development, agricultural development, livestock introduction, evangelism and philanthropic activities. In 1954, a colonization project with similar objectives to those in Liberia was established in the country of Peru, South America. The project in Peru was called “Tournavista”.

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Known throughout the construction world as, “The Dean of Earth Moving,” LeTourneau is considered to this day to have been the world’s greatest inventor of earth moving and materials handling equipment. Few manufacturers of that era had such a profound effect upon the art of earth moving as did LeTourneau. Just two years prior to his death, LeTourneau recorded his thoughts about the future of earth moving equipment:

“Within the next few years construction machinery will grow bigger and bigger, and more and more powerful. Instead of ‘tons’ of capacity, they’ll all be in ‘hundreds of tons’ and instead of hundreds of horsepower, they’ll all be rated in ‘thousands’ of horsepower. We’re already seeing it in big hauling units in the mines, and believe me, when the contractor and mining companies start looking for bigger and more profitable hauling units and earth moving equipment, I’m going to be right there, the firstest with the mostest.”

LeTourneau remained active in his company as president and chairman of the board from 1929 until 1966. He also held the position of chief engineer, personally working alongside his engineers and employees throughout his working life. Having spent his entire life around earth moving equipment, LeTourneau was just as likely to be seen at the controls of one of his machines, as he was to be seen attending to corporate matters. It was well known by those who were closest to him that he preferred the former. LeTourneau shunned the high-life often associated with successful businessmen, preferring to spend his time at the drawing board with the engineers designing new machinery or spending time on the factory floor overseeing his employees.

In March 1969, LeTourneau suffered a severe stroke from which he never recovered. He died on June 1, 1969 at the age of eighty and was outlived by his wife, four sons and daughter ✪


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