The Gradall Legend

Manpower shortage during World War II prompted invention of the world's first hydraulic excavator

The legendary Gradall excavator traces its roots back to the early 1940s — a time when World War II created a scarcity of laborers for delicate and necessary grading and finishing work on highway projects.

That was the exact dilemma faced by Ferwerda-Werba-Ferwerda, a Cleveland, Ohio, construction company. Ray and Koop Ferwerda, brothers who had moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands, were partners in the firm that had become one of the leading highway contractors in Ohio. Because so many men had left the workforce and joined the military, the Ferwerdas set out to create a machine that would save their company by performing what had been manual slope grading work.

Their first attempt was a device created with two beams set on a rotating platform which was affixed atop a used truck. A telescopic cylinder moved the beams in and out, enabling the fixed blade at the end of the beams to push or pull dirt.

Improving on the first design, the Ferwerda brothers created a triangular boom to create more strength, and they added a tilt cylinder that allowed the boom to rotate 45 degrees in either direction. This machine could be equipped with either a blade or bucket, and attachment movement was made possible by placing a cylinder at the rear of the boom, powering a long push rod.

Soon afterward, a variety of digging buckets was introduced, available in 15, 24, 36 and 60-inch sizes. A 47-inch heavy-duty pavement removal bucket also was offered.

The first of these machines was installed in 1941 on a government-surplus truck, becoming the world's first fully hydraulic excavator. The concept was so productive and successful, three more were built on second-hand Linn half-track carriers between 1942 and 1944.

Gradall was patented as a "material moving device"

Ray and Koop Ferwerda set out to patent the Gradall concept in 1940, probably as the first machine was being built. In their patent application, they called it a "material moving device."

"The principal object of the present invention is to provide an improved type of material moving device of sturdy construction and high efficiency," said the patent application.

"Another object of the invention is to provide an apparatus adapted for earth working of various types, including the shaping of earth surfaces in connection with roadways, embankments and various types of excavations."

Because of its invention during World War II, the patent application further envisioned military uses, providing "a self-contained military unit carrying ordnance, and also carrying an earth working unit adapted to provide a depression or an elevation for the suitable positioning of such military unit for more effective service."

The concept for Gradall's boom design was described as "having an operative element adapted to be positioned throughout a wide variety of operative angles and supporting in operative relation to the work various types of earth working and earth modifying implements."

The device, they said, could be adapted "to operate from a stationary platform or from a mobile vehicle." Unique for its time, the apparatus would be operated "by hydraulic units of high capacity" which could work "under heavy duty conditions to modify adjacent earth surfaces at low cost with high efficiency."

ConExpo 2002 got a glimpse of the first Gradalls

In 1964, Gradall's chief inspector happened upon one of the Linn half-track Gradall machines in an Akron, Ohio, junk yard. He promptly purchased it for $500, and it was quickly transported to the Gradall plant in New Philadelphia, Ohio, where it was only partially restored to preserve as much of the original machine as possible.

This machine was unveiled to public view during ConExpo 2002. Its upperstructure was powered by an International Harvester 6-cylinder gasoline engine, and all hydraulic pumps were manufactured by Hydreco, another Cleveland manufacturer. The upper operator cab was equipped with a tractor seat, which could be flipped up to create standing room. For greater operator comfort, four bolts holding the seating platform could be loosened and adjusted creating an extra inch or so of leg room.

Boom movements and upperstructure swing were controlled using two foot pedals and three joysticks. A chain mechanism controlled the upperstructure swing, more to the left than the right. Advanced designs of the same chain swing concept were used on Gradall machines until 1966.

The upperstructure of the machine was mounted on a swing mechanism using rollers and a channel, which has evolved into a very large swing bearing over the years. Jobsite mobility relied on a a Linn half-track undercarriage with a wooden cab and only two gauges showing amps and hydraulic pressure. The Linn engine was a 210-cubic-inch Waukesha, also a gasoline engine.

The boom's strong, telescoping, triangular design — still a Gradall trademark — was equipped with a digging bucket some 33-1/2 inches wide with a capacity of about a quarter yard.

Warner & Swasey launches Gradall into mainstream

Ray and Koop Ferwerda built about five Gradall excavators by the time they received their patent in 1944, and then began to look for a manufacturer to buy their invention, reaching an agreement with the Warner & Swasey Co. of Cleveland.

As part of the sale agreement, the Ferwerda family received exclusive distribution rights in parts of Florida, continuing to maintain branch locations in Tampa, Orlando and the Miami area.

Warner & Swasey had been looking to expand as part of a post-war diversificatin program, and in its 1945 report to stockholders, the company said it had purchased a unique earthmover, by then called "the Gradall," named for its ability to grade all surfaces. Warner & Swasey envisioned great value in the post-war era.

"This versatile machine combines in one mobile unit the functions of many types of construction equipment," the Warner & Swasey report continued, "and in addition readily handles tasks not previously practical for mechanized equipment."

The first model produced by Warner & Swasey was the M-2400 model, introduced in 1946 and mounted, like most of the early Gradall units on Army surplus 6x6 trucks.

The M-2400 was quickly accepted, prompting the company to acquire the former American Sheet & Tin Co. plant in New Philadelphia, Ohio, in 1950. In that plant, Warner & Swasey set up Gradall as a separate division, which soon introduced an M-2460 model containing several improvements over the M-2400.

Interstate highway system provided a big boost

The versatility of the Gradall excavator for road grading and maintenance matched up perfectly with the push to create a nationwide interstate highway system in the 1950s. Gradall popularity exploded, prompting the development of a succession of new models.

Models like the G-1000 became known for their workhorse capabilities. By now, Gradall excavators had evolved past the era of installing an upperstructure on a range of used truck chassis. Gradall excavators were available with crawler undercarriages, but their fame was linked to models with their own truck undercarriages. Ideally matched to the upperstructure, these truck undercarraiges could efficiently move the versatile workhorses over the long stretches of interstate highway and back to the equipment yard without the need for lowboys.

The G-600 and G-800 Series machines provided Gradall versatility in the form of different machine sizes. Later came the G3WD, which used just one engine to power the truck carrier and the upperstucture and boom — a development that re-wrote the book on value and versatility.

XL Series hydraulics changes everything

The introduction of XL Series hydraulics in 1992 marked the single most dramatic change in Gradall excavators since their invention. These state-of-the-art hydraulics systems enabled Gradall excavators to deliver high-productivity production on a level that was realistically comparable with conventional excavators.

XL Series hydraulics marked the end of the traditional Gradall power drawn from gear pumps and low pressure hydraulics — a system that effectively handled grading and finishing work but had difficulty competing for high-productivity jobs.

The new XL Series models were equipped with a piston pump, high- pressure hydraulics system, making dramatic improvements in boom and bucket breakout forces. With this increased power, Gradall excavators were armed with a remarkable increase in their ability to dig and lift.

In addition, the XL Series hydraulics system was designed with a load-sensing advantage. While most conventional excavators require an operator to select a working mode, the Gradall system automatically adjusts the hydraulic power for the job at hand, making the operator's job easier and conserving fuel.

XL Series hydraulics effectively thrust Gradall into the larger, highly competitive market of machines designed to handle excavating, demolition, pavement removal and other difficult jobs. The telescoping, tilting boom further advanced the Gradalls' marketability because of its exclusive ability to better position attachments and work in low-overhead spaces.

XL Series machines impact on the market

The first XL Series models were the XL 5000 machines, including the XL 5200 crawler weighing 53,800 pounds (24,263 kg) and the XL 5100 highway speed wheeled model weighing 55,275 pounds (25,023 kg).

Buoyed by the market's overwhelming approval of the XL 5000 models, Gradall rolled out the XL 4000 Series machines starting in 1993 — the XL 4100 highway speed wheeled model weighing 46,600 pounds (21,137 kg) and the XL 4200 crawler weighing 44,320 pounds (44,320 kg).

In 1996, the market showed a need for smaller machines that could economically deliver high productivity and extra versatility. That's when Gradall introduced a brand new weight class of excavators starting with the XL 2200 — a crawler that weighs 26,990 pounds (12,242 kg).

Two years later, in 1998, Gradall rolled out its first wheeled machine designed for extra mobility both on and off paved surfaces. Unveiled at the major Bauma world equipment show in Germany, the XL 2300 model has a rough terrain wheeled undercarriage and a single cab. It was the first Gradall machine designed specifically to earn the CE mark.

By 1998, the on-off road wheeled concept was already popular in Europe and growing quickly in the U.S. The Gradall XL 2300 model was distinguished by its telescoping, tilting boom as well as its exceptional stability while working off either end or either side of the undercarriage, with or without the use of its optional blade or outriggers.

The XL 4000 machines were introduced in 1999, including the XL 4200 crawler weighing 44,320 pounds (20,104 kg) and the XL 4100 highway-speed wheeled model weighing 46,600 pounds (21,137 kg). Another benchmark during 1999 was Gradall's ISO 9001 certification.

XL 3000 machines made their debut in the year 2000, starting with the highway speed wheeled model, the XL 3100, weighing 37,100 pounds (16,695 kg). Equipped with just one engine powering the upper and lower, it replaced the G3WD. Next came the XL 3200 crawler, weighing 34,660 pounds (15,772 kg). The XL 3000 Series machines also introduce a new standard color scheme — gray with red trim, replacing the earlier yellow and black standard scheme.

During 2001, the XL 3300 model started to fill out the collection of machines with rough terrain wheeled undercarriages. It weighs 36,970 pounds (16,770 kg).

Between the years 2002 and 2004, the entire line of XL 4000 machines was enhanced. The Series II models feature enhancements including new cabs, new lower profiles and new color schemes. The highway speed XL 4100 also was re-designed to run with just one engine instead of two.

Specialized machines produced since the 1992 XL Series hydraulics introduction include the XL 4210, XL 5210 and XL 6210 models, on crawler undercarriages and designed for metal mill maintenance. Also in that category is the XL 2210 model — the first Gradall production model engineered to operate using wireless remote control.

For mine scaling, Gradall produces the specialized XL 5110 with a rough terrain wheeled undercarriage. A range of other special designs includes railway maintenance models designed for mobility on both highways and tracks.

Ownership changes over the years

Gradall excavators and their legendary versatility have always enjoyed a unique demand, which made the brand attractive to owners. While that demand has never reached production levels of thousands of units per year, government entities and contractors have always been eager to add Gradall versatility to their fleets.

Gradall operators also have enjoyed a certain exclusivity, and equipment distributors have traditionally found Gradall excavators to be a profitable addition to their product ofering. The uniqueness of Gradall designs and production practices effectively spurned any competition, protecting the excavator's position in the market. As a result, Gradall — as a product group or as a free-standing company — has always been attractive to investors.

Warner & Swasey originally acquired Gradall excavators from inventors Ray and Koop Ferwerda in 1945 and set it up as a separate division in 1950. Over the years, the Gradall Division also included other manufacturing concerns: one produced crane carriers and heavy-duty dump trucks; another produced small hydraulic backhoes; a third made carrier mounted and rough terrain hydraulic cranes.

Some of those entities had been sold by the time Warner & Swasey — including the Gradall excavators — was acquired by Bendix Corp in 1980. The next change came when Allied Corp. acquired Bendix Corp. in 1983, and almost immediately sold the Gradall operation to a group of Gradall executives who formed a company called GBKS.

Two years later, in 1985, Gradall was acquired by ICM Industries, a Chicago-based consulting group. Then, in 1996, after three successive years of record revenues and profits, the New York investment group of Morgan, Lewis, Githens and Ahn took control of the company and directed its first public offering of stock. Morgan, Lewis, Githens and Ahn maintained a controlling interest, holding 45.6 percent of the stock until, in 1999, Gradall was acquired by JLG Industries, a world leader in the manufacture of aerial work platforms and telehandlers.

In February 2006, the Alamo Group, headquartered in Seguin, Texas, purchased Gradall including its Ohio manufacturing facility and all equipment, machinery, tooling and intellectual property involved in the excavator product line. Alamo Group owns some 14 plants in North America and Europe involved in the manufacture of right-of-way maintenance and agriculture equipment. Re-established as a stand-alone business, Gradall Industries, Inc., continues the design, production, sales and marketing at the same location established by Warner & Swasey Co. in 1950.

Since the early days, well over 15,000 excavators bearing the Gradall name plate have been produced on that same site and shipped to nearly every country worldwide. Total employment, at times, has reached well over 1,000.