A Brief History of Cranes

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Cranes have been in use for thousands of years. It’s thought that the first machines where devised in Ancient Greece at least 500 years before the birth of Christ as engineers sought new ways to build ever more impressive temples to their gods. Archeologists have found distinctive marks that could only have been left by lifting devices on blocks, and they have concluded that this is evidence of the first cranes.

However, this is hard to prove, as no actual records of these devices exist, although it’s known that winches and pulleys were put to use, to it is reasonable to expect that ancient engineers soon found ways to improve on these manually-operated devices to all allow ever greater loads to be lifted greater heights. Archeologists think that 20 ton blocks on the Parthenon in Athens could only have been lifted into place with some sort of machine as the old-style ramps-and-slaves way of working gradually disappeared.

old cranes

The Greeks weren’t the only people messing about with these new-fangled machines. The Romans, too, developed their own machinery, and refined the technology to involve treadmills to power the ropes through up to five pulleys giving lifting power of several tons per person powering the device. It’s thought that cranes were used to lift blocks weighing up to 100 tons in some buildings.

Clever use of multiple levels, with capstans and treadmills run by both human and animal power meant greater weights could be lifted greater distances. Alas, the fall of the Roman Empire meant that much of this technology was forgotten until the Middle Ages, where the treadmill crane re-emerged in the 13th Century. The fad for huge cathedrals meant that lifting technology was rediscovered on medieval construction sites, and soon appeared in harbours as well.

However, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that the crane as we know it today emerged with a vengeance. We’ll look at that in another historical feature.


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