LeTourneau, Robert Gilmour (1888–1969)

By: Ken Durham

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: January 10, 2001

Robert Gilmour LeTourneau, philanthropist, 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 was living in San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake. During the rebuilding he was 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.

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 the steel wheels sank in the sand. In 1935 he moved his plant to Peoria, Illinois, to be near the Caterpillar Tractor Company since contractors used Cats to pull R. G.'s scrapers. Here he established his first technical education courses for his employees who lacked the skills to do their jobs well. The instruction included mathematics, technical courses, and business courses.

In 1937, while recovering from an automobile accident, LeTourneau designed a four-wheeled, self-propelled scraper (the Tournapull/Carryall) powered by his revolutionary electric wheel. When Caterpillar refused to build the front component, the two-wheeled tractor (Tournapull), LeTourneau built it himself, putting himself in direct competition with Caterpillar. Within twenty years Caterpillar and all of his other competitors had adopted a similar design. The development of the self-propelled, scraper-earthmover in the late 1930s placed R. G. LeTourneau Inc. in the forefront of the earth-moving and heavy equipment industry just as World War II was beginning. During the war LeTourneau Inc. produced 70 percent of the earth-moving equipment (8,000 scrapers, 14,000 dozer blades, and other items) used by the Allies. The LeTourneau equipment enabled the Allied forces to build roads and airstrips rapidly, giving Allied forces an advantage that shortened the war. During the war LeTourneau constructed a new plant at Vicksburg, Mississippi, to handle his large volume of government contracts for earthmoving equipment and war materials.

In 1946 he moved his operations to Longview, Texas, where he constructed a steel mill to supply his assembly plants. 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 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, and he traveled each weekend to speak to large audiences about applying Christian principles in everyday life.

LeTourneau devoted much of his time and wealth to private education. He founded LeTourneau Technical Institute (now LeTourneau University); he was also a trustee of John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and a member of the board of reference of Wheaton College in Illinois. He was active in the Christian Business Men's Committee International, in which he served a term as president. LeTourneau died on June 1, 1969, in Longview and was survived by his wife, Mary Evelyn Peterson LeTourneau, and their five children.

East Texas (publication of the East Texas Chamber of Commerce), August 1946. Texas Parade, December 1952, June 1954. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Education
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Business

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ken Durham, “LeTourneau, Robert Gilmour,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/letourneau-robert-gilmour.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 10, 2001