A Brief History of Excavators

A History of Excavators

They’re arguably the most recognised piece of Plant on this Planet. Used across an array of earthmoving activities and sectors, the Excavator is integral to the Plant Machinery Industry. This week, we’re delving into the history of Excavators and looking at how they’re evolved over the years.

The First Hydraulic Excavators.

Image Courtesy of OEM Off-Highway

The excavators we know and love to dig with today have grown out of 140 years of development. The late 1800s saw the realisation that hydraulic force can aid digging applications. From there, what might be considered a descendant of modern excavators was developed.


Before the 1880s, excavators were cabled. While cabled excavators were still in operation, hydraulic excavators are more widely popular for a broader range of applications. It’s widely acknowledged that W.G. Armstrong & Co.’s was one of the first companies to produce a hydraulic excavator used in a practical application.

In reality, W.G. Armstong & Co.’s excavator, which was used in the construction of the Hull Docks, was not hydraulic. Water was used where today hydraulic fluid would be used. In addition, the machine’s bucket was operated by cables.

In 1897, Kilgore Machine Company introduced the first ‘all hydraulic’ excavator. This machine was operated using direct-action four steam cylinders and no cables. Kilgore’s excavator was hardy, therefore hardy in operation. Furthermore, the end of each cylinder’s stroke was cushioned, consequently there was no shock damage while in operation.

These machines were only the beginning of the excavator’s history.

Introducing the Mini Excavator

Fast forward 60 years to the 1960s in Japan. The country is facing an economic boom and growing urbanisation. As a result, the civil engineering sector was under pressure to create new houses in built up areas. The issue they face is that excavators would relieve the pressure faced by demands for shorter construction times, but the machinery won’t fit on most of the construction sites. Consequently, laborers are forced to use pickaxes and shovels.

The YNB 300 was Yanmar Construction Company’s answer to this issue. The wheeled self-propelled mini excavator is not only able to fit onto the tight construction sites, but is the world’s first mini excavator. Following the success of the YNB300, Yanmar released the YNB600C. The YNB600C improved operator performance and included a swing boom. As a result, this incarnation of the mini excavator could dig against walls.

History of Excavators: Yanmar Celebrate's YNB300's 50th Anniversary.
Yanmar celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the release of the YNB300C in 2018

Other companies worldwide felt the pressure. By the mid 1980s, multiple companies including JCB, Kubota, Beresford, and Manitou, had released their own mini diggers. Meanwhile, technology and machinery solutions continued to develop and improve.

Developments in a New Millennium

In recent years, new technology has played an important role in the development of excavators. From improved operator comfort, to more efficient energy solutions, the developments have been numerous.

The 1998 release of the ViO40 by Yanmar, the world’s first zero tailswing excavator, marked the start of the development of smaller, more efficient excavators. Following this, the 2010s saw the start of the commonplace use of hybrid technology in Plant Machinery Operation. This technology allowed the industry to produce more efficient machines while lowering operator usage costs.

The last five or so years have seen developments in autonomous digging technology, gps and geo location technology, and the use of electric and alternative fuel solutions.

The history of excavators is on going. Take a look at the development of excavators over the past 10 years, and let us know what you think the next decade holds for the machines:

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