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When Were Cranes Invented? A History of Construction Cranes

The Earliest Cranes

Cranes have been a part of human history for thousands of years. In ancient Mesopotamia, shadoofs were used as an irrigation tool as early as 3000 BCE. By 2000 BCE, these innovative tools had found their way into the neighboring civilizations of ancient Egypt.

Shadoofs, the earliest ancestors of cranes, were essentially pivoting levers with a bucket attached. The operator would lower the bucket into a body of water, allowing it to fill. Once full, they would raise the arm of the lever and spin it to deliver water to crops, irrigation channels, or basins of some sort.

The First Construction Cranes

By the 6th century BCE, evidence of the first construction cranes appeared in the archeological record. The blocks of Greek temples from this time include markings consistent with lifting tongs and lewis irons. The holes themselves imply the use of a lifting device of some kind.

But the positioning of the holes leads archaeologists to believe the ancient Greeks were using cranes as opposed to more primitive lifting methods. These cranes were more than just simple levers. By adding winches and compound pulley systems to the machines, the cranes of ancient Greece proved far more useful than their predecessors.

Although these early cranes made it far easier to lift and move heavy objects, construction of the era was characterized by the use of smaller, not larger, materials. A leading theory is that the use of cranes allowed construction projects to shift from unskilled to skilled labor during this time. Thus, smaller crews of specialized workers could manage projects that would otherwise require huge teams relying on brute force.

Cranes in Ancient Rome

Before long, Romans improved upon the types of cranes used in ancient Greece. Early designs only amplified lifting capabilities a few fold. But by replacing winches with treadwheels, Roman cranes allowed a pair of operators to lift a remarkable 6,000 kg.

Although this image isn’t actually a depiction of Roman construction, it provides an accurate look at how their treadwheel cranes operated. Unfortunately, after the fall of Rome, the use of cranes all but disappeared until the middle ages. When they did resurface, the designs relied on the same basic technology. However, some turned to water and windmills to provide natural power.

When Was The Hydraulic Crane Invented?

Cranes as we know them today can be traced back to 1838 when William Armstrong invented the first hydraulic crane. This water-powered crane relied on a hydraulic jigger to pull a chain which lifted the load. The jigger was composed of a ram encased in a closed cylinder. A controlled valve allowed pressurized water into the cylinder, pressing down the ram and lifting the load as a result.

A small hydraulic crane from the early 20th century. The jigger is the small horizontal piece near the base.

Armstrong’s cranes proved to be so successful that his company grew more than tenfold by the 1860s. At that point, the company employed nearly 4,000 workers and built more than 100 cranes a year. As the company grew, Armstrong continued to improve upon his designs. His most significant innovation came in the form of a hydraulic accumulator.

This accumulator consisted of a plunger which supported a heavy weight and was housed inside a cast-iron cylinder. By lifting the hefty plunger, water would draw into the cylinder. Then, when the plunger was released, it pushed the water into connected pipes with a tremendous force.

As a result, the hydraulic accumulator dramatically increased the quantity of water that could be pushed through piping at a measured rate. This, in turn, allowed for cranes to manage significantly larger loads.

Modern Cranes

Today’s cranes evolved from Armstrong’s early designs. A number of innovations, including the use of combustible gas for power, have made modern cranes far more powerful than those of yesteryear.

Without cranes, our vertical cities simply wouldn’t be possible. They’re integral pieces of equipment for the construction of the buildings themselves. Plus, they’re required for the installation and maintenance of heavy equipment on the roof and higher floors. In fact, the very existence of skyscrapers are linked directly to the evolution of cranes.

As the need for cranes grew over the years, so too did the variety of cranes available. Modern all-terrain cranes are mobile enough to make it to virtually any job site and capable of lifting hundreds of tons once they arrive. But mobile cranes aren’t just limited to these workhorses.

At La Grange Crane, we have the equipment and personnel to help with any kind of heavy lifting. We’ll help you decide whether a small crane can handle your lift or if perhaps a crane truck rental might be a better option.

We’ve been helping Chicago area contractors build and bolster our city and the surrounding areas for more than 50 years. So the next time you have a project that requires some heavy lifting, let us show you how easy it is to get the job done when you’re working with the best in the business.