David Roberts (engineer)
David Roberts was the Chief Engineer and managing director of Richard Hornsby & Sons
Richard Hornsby & Sons
Richard Hornsby & Sons was an engine and machinery manufacturer in Lincolnshire, England from 1828 until 1918. The company was a pioneer in the manufacture of the oil engine developed by Herbert Akroyd Stuart and marketed under the Hornsby-Akroyd name. The company developed an early track system...

 in the early 1900s. His invention, the caterpillar track, was demonstrated to the army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 in 1907.


He grew up in Great Boughton
Boughton, Cheshire
Boughton is a neighbourhood to the east of Chester city centre, part of the unitary authority of Cheshire West and Chester and the ceremonial county of Cheshire, England...

 in the east of Chester, the son of David Roberts and his wife Anne, being trained as a hydraulic
Hydraulics is a topic in applied science and engineering dealing with the mechanical properties of liquids. Fluid mechanics provides the theoretical foundation for hydraulics, which focuses on the engineering uses of fluid properties. In fluid power, hydraulics is used for the generation, control,...

 engineer, starting work for Hydraulic Engineering Company Ltd in 1873, staying with them for fifteen years, living in England and overseas. He worked for Sir WG Armstrong Mitchell & Company Ltd
Armstrong Whitworth
Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co Ltd was a major British manufacturing company of the early years of the 20th century. Headquartered in Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, Armstrong Whitworth engaged in the construction of armaments, ships, locomotives, automobiles, and aircraft.-History:In 1847,...

 in Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne is a city and metropolitan borough of Tyne and Wear, in North East England. Historically a part of Northumberland, it is situated on the north bank of the River Tyne...

 from 1888, staying for eight years. For two and a half years he was manager of their Italian works at Pozzuoli
Pozzuoli is a city and comune of the province of Naples, in the Italian region of Campania. It is the main city of the Phlegrean peninsula.-History:Pozzuoli began as the Greek colony of Dicaearchia...

, in the Province of Naples
Province of Naples
The Province of Naples is a province in the Campania region of Italy. Its capital city is Naples, within the province there are 92 Comuni of the Province of Naples.-Demographics:...



He joined Hornsbys in 1895 as Chief Engineer, and Works Manager, having been knowledgeable of Hornsbys development of the compression-ignition heavy oil engine
Hot bulb engine
The hot bulb engine, or hotbulb or heavy oil engine is a type of internal combustion engine. It is an engine in which fuel is ignited by being brought into contact with a red-hot metal surface inside a bulb....

 and the worldwide engineering potential of it. He became General Manager, then Managing Director in 1904 (until 1918). Whilst at Hornsbys, their manufacturing area grew from 16 acres (64,749.8 m²) to 80 acres (323,748.8 m²). From 1918–20, he was Joint Managing Director of Ruston & Hornsby Ltd, retiring in 1920. He was Vice-President of Grantham Liberal Club on London Road.

At Hornsbys, his inventions included improvements to the Water-tube boiler
Water-tube boiler
A water tube boiler is a type of boiler in which water circulates in tubes heated externally by the fire. Fuel is burned inside the furnace, creating hot gas which heats water in the steam-generating tubes...


The Caterpillar Tractor

In 1903, the War Office
War Office
The War Office was a department of the British Government, responsible for the administration of the British Army between the 17th century and 1964, when its functions were transferred to the Ministry of Defence...

 offered a prize of £1000 to produce a tractor that could haul a load of 25 ton
The ton is a unit of measure. It has a long history and has acquired a number of meanings and uses over the years. It is used principally as a unit of weight, and as a unit of volume. It can also be used as a measure of energy, for truck classification, or as a colloquial term.It is derived from...

s for 40 miles (64.4 km) without stopping for fuel or water. Hornsbys entered an 80 hp 12-ton tractor
A tractor is a vehicle specifically designed to deliver a high tractive effort at slow speeds, for the purposes of hauling a trailer or machinery used in agriculture or construction...

, which was the only entrant to complete the 40 miles (64.4 km), subsequently running on to 58 miles (93.3 km) before running out of fuel.

Roberts, from this experience of the War Office competition, had the vision to design a vehicle for the British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 which would be able to traverse unstable ground. Vehicles such as Hornsby's 12-ton tractor would quickly be hindered by waterlogged surfaces with wheels sinking in mud. On 23 July 1904, his patent (No. 16,345) obviated this problem, with a vehicle where
He submitted four other patents in later years, including No. 16,436 on 14 July 1909, which involved "Improvements in and connected with the Driving Axle
An axle is a central shaft for a rotating wheel or gear. On wheeled vehicles, the axle may be fixed to the wheels, rotating with them, or fixed to its surroundings, with the wheels rotating around the axle. In the former case, bearings or bushings are provided at the mounting points where the axle...

s of Chain Track Tractors and Locomotives".

In 1905, a Hornsby 20-hp 17-ton tractor was fitted with a chain track. In July 1905 and February 1906, it was demonstrated at Grantham
Grantham is a market town within the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, England. It bestrides the East Coast Main Line railway , the historic A1 main north-south road, and the River Witham. Grantham is located approximately south of the city of Lincoln, and approximately east of Nottingham...

 to representatives from the War Office. In August 1906, the 1903 competition-winning tractor was fitted with chain tracks. On testing this vehicle in July 1907, the word caterpillar
Caterpillars are the larval form of members of the order Lepidoptera . They are mostly herbivorous in food habit, although some species are insectivorous. Caterpillars are voracious feeders and many of them are considered to be pests in agriculture...

was first used to describe the machine (by British soldiers). In May 1908, this vehicle was demonstrated to King Edward VII
Edward VII of the United Kingdom
Edward VII was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India from 22 January 1901 until his death in 1910...

 and the Prince of Wales
George V of the United Kingdom
George V was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, from 6 May 1910 through the First World War until his death in 1936....

 at Aldershot
Aldershot is a town in the English county of Hampshire, located on heathland about southwest of London. The town is administered by Rushmoor Borough Council...

, who were introduced to David Roberts.

Hornsbys bought a 40 hp Rochet-Schneider
Rochet-Schneider was a French company that produced automobiles during the early 20th century. The Rochet-Schneider sales slogan was "strength, simplicity and silence"....

 car, powered by a petrol engine
Petrol engine
A petrol engine is an internal combustion engine with spark-ignition, designed to run on petrol and similar volatile fuels....

 in 1906. It was fitted with a chain track and was trialled by the Army in November 1907 in Aldershot. The 4-ton vehicle achieved speeds of 15 mi/h over difficult terrain. Hornsbys, in a rare moment of marketing savoir-faire, commissioned a film of this vehicle to promote the virtues of the caterpillar track, which was to be shown at provincial and London cinemas in the summer of 1908. The film was first shown at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square
Leicester Square
Leicester Square is a pedestrianised square in the West End of London, England. The Square lies within an area bound by Lisle Street, to the north; Charing Cross Road, to the east; Orange Street, to the south; and Whitcomb Street, to the west...

 on 27 April 1908, on a device then known as a bioscope
Bioscope show
A Bioscope show was a fairground attraction consisting of a travelling cinema. The heyday of the Bioscope was from the late 1890s until World War I....

. It was often of more interest than the actual film being shown, and is apparently the first film made for commercial purposes. Roberts was looking at increasing the speed of tracked vehicles. Hornsbys bought a 75 hp Mercedes
Mercedes (car)
Mercedes was a brand of the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft . DMG which began to develop in 1900, after the death of its co-founder, Gottlieb Daimler...

 car and fitted it with chained tracks with wooden wheels to test a desert environment. Tests with this vehicle on Skegness
Skegness is a seaside town and civil parish in the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, England. Located on the Lincolnshire coast of the North Sea, east of the city of Lincoln it has a total resident population of 18,910....

 beach in 1908–09 achieved speeds of 25 mi/h; such speeds with a caterpillar-tracked vehicle would not be surpassed until World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. In 1910, Hornsbys sold four caterpillar tractors to the War Office—driving the first from Grantham to Aldershot. The tractors were used for towing artillery. Unfortunately, the officers in the Royal Artillery
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

 were not enamoured with the vehicle, finding it noisy and slow. One officer wrote, "The team of eight horses in my opinion is far superior under every condition."

Hornsbys thought civilian applications of the caterpillar track would be popular, but they only ended up selling one vehicle. Holt Manufacturing
Benjamin Holt
Benjamin Leroy Holt was an American inventor who was the first to patent and manufacture a first practical crawler-type tread tractor. The continuous-type track is used for heavy agricultural and engineering vehicles to spread the weight over a large area to prevent the vehicle from sinking into...

 and C.L. Best Tractor Co. (the originator was Daniel Best
Daniel Best
Daniel Best was an American adventurer, inventor, and entrepreneur known for pioneering agriculture machinery and heavy machinery.-Early years:...

) of the USA recognised its potential and sold many tracked vehicles; their vehicles were steered by a front wheel, unlike modern tanks. Hornsbys, with no incentives from military orders, did not see the same glowing future for the type of vehicle. They sold the patent to Holt, and only a year later, the British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 ordered 442 of Holt's caterpillar tracked vehicles made under licence by Ruston
Ruston (engine builder)
Ruston & Hornsby, later known as Ruston, was an industrial equipment manufacturer in Lincoln, England, the company's history going back to 1840. The company is best known as a manufacturer of narrow and standard gauge diesel locomotives and also of steam shovels. Other products included cars, steam...

 in Lincoln
Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Lincoln is a cathedral city and county town of Lincolnshire, England.The non-metropolitan district of Lincoln has a population of 85,595; the 2001 census gave the entire area of Lincoln a population of 120,779....



He married Elizabeth Gertrude Anderson (born 1860 in Kingston upon Hull
Kingston upon Hull
Kingston upon Hull , usually referred to as Hull, is a city and unitary authority area in the ceremonial county of the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. It stands on the River Hull at its junction with the Humber estuary, 25 miles inland from the North Sea. Hull has a resident population of...

) in 1885, daughter of banker in Hull. They had four sons and a daughter: David (born c. 1887), William (born c. 1888, known as Willie) (both born in Chester), Marion (born c. 1890 in Pozzuoli, Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

), Kenneth (born 1891 in Gosforth
Gosforth is an area of Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England, United Kingdom, to the north of the city centre. Gosforth constituted an urban district from 1895 to 1974, when it became part of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. It has a population of 23,620...

, became Managing Director of the James Coultas agricultural engineering company in Grantham) and Cyril (born c. 1893 in Newcastle). In Newcastle, they lived at Elswick
Elswick, Tyne and Wear
Elswick is a ward of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in the western part of the city, bordering the river Tyne. One of the earliest references to the coal mining industry of the north east occurs in 1330, when it was recorded that the Prior of Tynemouth let a colliery, called Heygrove, at...

. In Grantham, they lived at 64 London Road. He died on 22 April 1928, aged 69, at his home "Beaconfield" on Beacon Lane in Grantham (the house is now the NHS Beaconfield Psychiatric Clinic). He was made a Freeman of the City
Freedom of the City
Freedom of the City is an honour bestowed by some municipalities in Australia, Canada, Ireland, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, Gibraltar and Rhodesia to esteemed members of its community and to organisations to be honoured, often for service to the community;...

of Chester. He was buried in Grantham Cemetery on 25 April 1928.

External links


  • US Patent 1135621 dated 13 April 1915, for a Golf and like Club (with Kenneth Roberts, his son)
  • US Patent 1124061 dated 5 January 1915, for a Vaporizer for Internal Combustion Engines
  • US Patent 983646 dated 11 February 1911 for a Vaporizer for Internal Combustion Engines (with John William Young)
  • US Patent 979888 dated 27 December 1910, for a Governor for Internal-Combustion Engines (with Alfred Rowe Bellamy and Charles James)
  • US Patent 975283 dated 8 November 1910, for a Mechanism for Transmitting Reciprocating Motion
  • US Patent 972024 dated 4 October 1910, for an Internal Combustion Engine (with Charles James)
  • US Patent 930798 dated 10 August 1909, for a portable track for motor vehicles (with Charles James)
  • US Patent 916601 dated 30 March 1909, for a Traction Engine (caterpillar tractor, with Charles James)
  • US Patent 910232 dated 19 January 1909, for a Steering device for Motor Vehicles (with Charles James)
  • US Patent 904086 dated 17 November 1908, for an Internal Combustion Engine
  • US Patent 798705 dated 5 September 1905, for a Steam Superheater
  • US Patent 742356 dated 27 October 1903, for a Machine Tool
  • US Patent 725875 dated 21 April 1903, for improvements to Water Tube Boilers
  • US Patent 689491 dated 24 December 1901, for a Steam Generator (with William Hornsby and Charles James)
  • US Patent 680593 dated 13 August 1901, for a Steam Generator (with William Hornsby).
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