While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Ken Durham

LETOURNEAU, ROBERT GILMOUR (1888–1969). 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.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


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

Handbook of Texas Online, Ken Durham, "LETOURNEAU, ROBERT GILMOUR," accessed July 14, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fle36.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...