A Brief History of Cranes

Cranes come in multiple forms, ranging from small cranes used inside, to tall cranes used for high buildings. The history of cranes is diverse and fascinating; spanning from ancient Greece to Ancient Rome.

Ancient Greece

The first crane for heavy lifting was invented by Ancient Greeks as far back as the late 6th century BC. The evidence that this is the first use of a crane comes from the holes on stone blocks of Greek temples showed distinctive cuttings. This seems in line with the use of a lifting advice, seeing as the holes are above the centre of gravity of the block. These cranes were reportedly powered by men or animals, such as donkeys. Historians have suggested that the system of ramps used to carry weight vertically upwards was ultimately substituted with a winch and pulley system. This change lead to builders using greater quantities of smaller stones, rather than fewer larger ones.

Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome during the time of the Roman Empire, construction activity was rife. The Romans implemented the use of the Greek crane and developed it. There is indication that the humblest Roman crane, the trispastos, comprised of a single-beam jib, a winch, a rope, and a block containing three pulleys. The trispastos permitted a single man to lift around 150kg. Other cranes could lift heavier loads and featured five pulleys. Cranes of five pulleys were called pentaspastos. Polyspastos was the largest crane, consisting of a set of three by five pulleys and came with two, three or four masts. The polyspastos is reported to have been able to lift an estimated maximum of 6,000kg if the winch was swapped with a treadwheel.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw a peak in the use of the treadwheel crane, as technology use had demised due to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Magna rota, or rather treadwheel cranes, were not the only cranes in use during the Medieval period. Moreover, Medieval illustrations show cranes as being powered manually by windlasses with radiating spokes, cranks, and later by windlasses fashioned like a ship’s wheel. The Medieval times were a period of constant evolvement of the crane.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution saw the first modern cranes being installed at harbours for loading and unloading cargo. The work that the cranes were being used for meant that they needed to be very strong. Therefore were built into stone towers to add to their reliability. Additionally, the industrial revolution also saw cranes changing from a wooden construction to being made from cast iron and steel. The introduction of steam engines lead to the first mechanical crane, which was first introduced in the eighteenth or nineteenth century.

Cranes continued to be man and animal powered for centuries. In 1838, the industrialist and businessman William Armstrong (Now Sir William Armstrong) created a hydraulic water driven crane. His cranes were so popular that his company was producing over 100 cranes per year by the early 1860s. Sir Armstrong’s most prevalent innovation was the hydraulic accumulator. These days, hydraulic cranes still rely on the same mechanical and hydraulic principles that were established centuries ago.

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