The history of the modern crane
Cranes are an essential piece of machinery for many industries. From construction to infrastructure, rail transportation and maritime services, cranes perform critical lifting operations.
While cranes have been utilised in almost every area of industrial development over the last century, their origins date back thousands of years… in fact, it’s believed people first used rudimentary cranes as early as 515BC.
Today, we take a look at the history of the modern crane, from ancient civilisations through the Middle Ages, the industrial revolution and post-war applications. It’s amazing to see how far this powerful machine has come.
Around the world there are impressive ancient structures that make you wonder how people constructed them. While sheer manpower built many of them, architectural historians believe that the people used a basic crane to erect some of these buildings.
Greek monuments such as the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion are examples of structures that people built using the earliest examples of cranes. A recent archaeological study concluded that a crane-like apparatus was utilised to lift heavy stone blocks at the Greek temples.
The development of a winch and pulley hoist system replaced the traditional ramps used for construction, and historians believe that men and donkeys provided the power for this elementary crane.
Ancient Romans took the Greek invention and found ways to increase its lifting capacity. The Trispastos was their simplest crane, consisting of a single-beam jib, a winch, a rope and a block with three pulleys. This apparatus allowed a single man to lift around 150 kilograms.
In addition to the Trispastos, there was also the Pentaspastos five pulley crane, and the Polyspastos that could lift up to 3000 kilograms.
Cranes in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, a version of the Polyspastos that used treadwheel power became more widely used as they offered much greater vertical lifting capacity. These treadwheel cranes were often employed in harbours, mines and on building sites throughout Europe.
They provided excellent efficiency and were relatively cost-effective to erect at building sites. Many Gothic cathedrals were built during this era and the crane was an essential device in their construction.
The Industrial Revolution saw an increase in the demand for cranes, and this is when they evolved from wood construction to cast iron and steel construction. While still predominantly used in building, harbours still regularly installed cranes to allow efficient cargo loading.
Throughout this period cranes, people still mostly used steam engines to power cranes, but in 1838 the industrialist Sir William Armstrong designed the first hydraulic crane.
Over the following decades, he continually improved his design, and one of his cranes, commissioned by the Italian Navy in 1883, was still being used in the mid-1950s.
Modern internal combustion engines became standard use in the 1900s, and visions of cranes along iconic skylines are synonymous with places like New York City.
During the war years, mobile cranes were extremely important for managing the movement of heavy military equipment, demolition and rapid assembly of infrastructure. And it was these cranes that paved the way for the post-war commercial and residential construction boom. While the machines we use today are technically advanced, there are still many features that herald back to the past.
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