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ConExpo Catapults From Road Show Into Extravaganza

A look back at the roots of the ConExpo show, going back a century.

Wed January 15, 2014 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

This ConExpo article was published in Construction Equipment Guide (CEG) in March 2002. This and other ConExpo articles to follow will be part of a continuing series that take a look back at ConExpos past through the reporting of CEG. We hope you enjoy these retros as much as we did searching for them deep in our archives.

Old-timers among us remember steamrollers, associated with the smell of hot asphalt, and steam shovels, whose operator sat in a wooden “house” on a flat chassis as he pulled levers to work the cables that swung, opened, and closed the jaws at the end of the machine’s arm.

These were the types of equipment that were displayed at the “Road Shows” in the early 1900s. Some models driven by steam were actually still operating in the 1930s, until motorized versions replaced them.

The first Road Show, the forerunner of today’s huge ConExpo-Con/AGG 2002 (March 17-23 in Las Vegas), was held in 1909 in Columbus, Ohio, with 40 exhibitors. It was sponsored by the American Road Makers, which had been founded seven years before as part of the “good roads movement” to improve the dirt roads that had been okay for horses and stagecoaches but not for the new automobiles that were coughing down the lanes, or for the millions of cyclists.

Fewer than 450,000 cars were on roads at the time of the first show. There were only 204,000 mi. of paved roads throughout the United States in 1910, when the American Road Makers was renamed the American Road Builders Association (ARBA), which became the present American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in 1977.

Forty exhibitors showed their wares at that first show, which featured “amazing new devices,” including motor rollers that “could do the work of 15 horse-drawn units.”

The show was reportedly regarded as a “hazardous experiment.”

Over the ensuing century, this small exhibit grew steadily into the largest construction industry event in the Western Hemisphere, held only once every three years and highlighting many models of still-amazing new equipment.

Instead of 40 exhibitors, ConExpo-Con/AGG 2002 features 2,000, a record 1.8-million sq. ft. of floor space and an expected attendance of more than 100,000 people.

The evolution of the Road Show mirrors the progress of the industry, and its machines that moved the dirt, paved the roads, lifted the beams and constructed the new 20th century world.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

“The early 1900s still used a lot of animal-power for moving things,” Tom Berry, archivist for the Historical Construction Equipment Association in Bowling Green, Ohio, told Construction Equipment Guide. “Steam was the major source of power for powered equipment. Wide-spread use of internal combustion power in construction equipment didn’t come until the 1910s and 1920s.”

Though there are few specifics on exactly what was shown in the early shows, they reflected what was new at the time. Graders were drawn by livestock or tractors until the first motorized models were introduced in 1918 or 1919.

Steam-powered rollers compacted rock and dirt from those early days all the way until diesels came in during the 1930s.

A visitor to a show in 1913 could have seen cranes mounted on crawlers, concrete pavers powered by boilers, which could mix and place concrete right on site, and equipment that mixed asphalt in place, towing a screed that leveled and compacted the material.

In 1919, cranes mounted on trucks were the latest thing. (Cranes and trucks weren’t integrated as a single unit until 1939.)

“There wasn’t much in the way of large equipment in the early days,” said Berry.

“As time progressed, heavy machines became more prevalent and it evolved from there.”

The Show Grows

The Road Show grew with the nation’s roads. The second show, in 1910, included 45 exhibitors. About 1,500 delegates attended.

According to ARTBA, the show “came of age in the Roaring Twenties” when it was “bolstered by the stabilization of the federal-aid road program in 1921, rising federal and state revenues for road construction and a growing number of manufacturers serving the industry” and became a major attraction for the road contractors and state and municipal road agency delegates attending the association’s annual meeting.

The Road Shows were held in Chicago from 1921-27. The 17th show, held in Chicago Coliseum in 1926, featured 295 exhibitors. The total registration was about 15,000, compared with 6,000 in 1923. Products included a wide range of both heavy and light equipment, and various construction materials.

During the 20’s, mechanized wheeled scrapers drawn by tractors came to the forefront. Rotary scrapers, sometimes called “tumblebugs” because they simply slid along the ground and flipped over to dump their loads, were also widely used. The first hydraulically-operated bulldozer was introduced in 1925, with cable-operated models appearing in 1928.

The Road Show was an integral part of the ARBA conventions through subsequent decades.

The exhibits in the 30s reflected major advances in mechanization of the construction industry, which now used the internal combustion almost everywhere, allowing larger, more powerful, equipment.

“The use of livestock to pull wagons and scrapers was virtually eliminated along with a good deal of manual labor,” said Berry. “Perhaps only the advent of small hydraulic machines such as skid steer loaders and compact excavators in the latter part of the century paralleled the transformation of the industry. A few steam-powered excavators remained active through the 1930s, but gasoline and diesel came to dominate the industry.”

Motorgrader design slowly standardized on machines built from the ground up, rather than being attachments for use on crawlers or wheeled tractors.

“Self-propelled graders dominated the industry by 1940,” Berry said.

The crawler loader appeared on the scene as a product of the 1930s, along with the asphalt paver, which replaced unpowered screeds and finishers.

Road Show participants included the Highway Industries Association (HIA), whose members formed ARBA’s Manufacturers’ Division in 1927, and the Construction Industries Association (CIA), who were among the forerunners of the Construction Industries Manufacturers Association (CIMA) in Milwaukee, Wis., now the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM).

Shows were held annually and then biennially throughout the 1920s and 1930s, although they were on the low-key side during the Depression years.

Show sites during the 20s and 30s included Chicago, Cleveland, Atlantic City, St. Louis and Detroit.

Motor scrapers became increasingly popular in the 1940s because of their greater speed, though pull scrapers continued to be widely used into the 1950s. One of the biggest breakthroughs of this decade was a quantum improvement in hydraulic systems. The pneumatic power drill was another major improvement. Rubber-tired loaders replaced crawler-drawn wagons and rubber-tired bulldozers appeared on sites.

The 1940 Road Show took place in Chicago, Ill. Then the nation, and the industry, went to war. The next show was eight years later, 1948, in Chicago. It was the most comprehensive up to that time, reflecting the post-war spirit of growth and vitality.

As computers and other technology revolutionized equipment during the decades that followed, machines have become larger, more powerful and much more productive. The descendants of the horse-drawn units are today’s computer-aided 350-ton cranes, hydraulic excavators with 60-ft. (18 m) reaches, backhoes with 72-ft. (22 m) super-reach booms, powerful dozers and wheel loaders, satellite-aided graders, and the wide range of versatile equipment being displayed at ConExpo-Con/AGG.


More elaborate shows meant more planning time. The next show, in Chicago in 1957 — at the beginning of the Interstate Era — was the first to be produced exclusively by CIMA, now AEM. It was followed by shows in 1963, 1969, and 1975, also in Chicago.

In 1963, the show became the Construction Equipment Exposition. It adopted the ConExpo name in 1969 and became known as the International Construction Equipment Exposition in 1975.

The 1981 Show was held in Houston’s Astrodomain Complex. ConExpo ’87 and ConExpo ’93 were held in Las Vegas.

The stage was set for the next big event, combining with the Con/AGG exposition in 1994 to produce the first ConExpo-Con/AGG in 1996.


The Manufacturer’s Division that had supported Road Shows exhibited for the first time at the annual convention of the National Sand and Gravel Association (NSGA) in Detroit, Mich., in 1928. Thus begins the story of Con/AGG.

NAGA and its division, the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA), held biennial shows at that time. Their exposition was renamed the “Combined Biennial Show” in 1956. They were joined as a co-sponsor in 1964 by the National Stone Association (NSA).

(NSA and NSGA are now combined as the Natinal Stone, Sand and Gravel Association.)

The show was then renamed “The Concrete and Aggregates Show” in 1970 and International Concrete and Aggregates Show in 1980. This is the event which combined with the ConExpo exposition.

ConExpo-Con/AGG 2002

In 1994, the owners and producers of the two shows joined forces to establish ConExpo-Con/AGG. Their first show, in March 1996, in Las Vegas, drew more than 95,500 attendees and 1,280 exhibitors. The second, in 1999, grew to 124,000 attendees and 1,882 exhibitors. This triennial event has become the Western Hemisphere’s largest show for the construction, aggregates and ready mixed concrete industries.

The co-owners and co-producers of ConExpo-Con/AGG 2002 are AEM (formed on Jan. 1, 2002, by the consolidation of CIMA and the Equipment Manufacturers Institute), NRMCA, and NSSGA.

Early on, the Road Show attracted other construction associations, a phenomenon which has continued until the present, when ConExpo-Con/AGG has become an industry-wide meeting for the construction and construction materials industries.

“It’s a huge event,” commented Brian Deery, senior director of the Highway Division of the Associated General Contractors of America [AGC], which is listed as one of the show co-sponsors. AGC is sponsoring the Information Technology Pavilion at the show, which will showcase software, contractor applications, support equipment, telecommunications and other equipment or services for technology-type and management service companies such as insurance and consulting.

“The pavilion kind of parallels what we do on off-ConExpo years but it is part of ConExpo,” said AGC spokesperson Dennis Day. “This is the second time we are listed as a show co-sponsor but the first time that we are actually sponsoring part of the show with the pavilion.”

AGC, ARTBA, and the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) are among the nine industry organizations that are holding their national conventions in Las Vegas during the show.

Officials of the organizations say their members can attend special meetings, with their own speakers and social events, at their convention programs, but also benefit from the networking and wide range of information at the big show.

AGC expects 3,500 people at its national convention. NUCA, co-locating its convention in conjunction with ConExpo-Con/AGG for the first time, expects about 800. Also co-locating for the first time will be the International Exposition for Fluid Power.

“We’re hoping to receive additional exposure from being associated with the show,” said Bill Hilllman, NUCA’s executive vice president in Arlington, Va.

“We’re hoping to have all kinds of people learn more about NUCA, and there’s also greater cost-efficiency for our members who can ’kill two birds with one stone’ by attending both events. We also gave up our own equipment show because of ConExpo being there.”

“Being associated with the largest construction and aggregate trade show is a benefit for our members, who can not only attend our educational sessions but also go to ConExpo to see the latest equipment and services,” said AGC’s Day.

“Anytime you can get over 100,000 people together at a show, it’s a great benefit. I can’t imagine it not being a hugely successful show.”

From the first Road Show in 1909 to the spectacular gathering in 2002, the industry displays its vigor as it moves onward and upward.

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