A History of Cranes

Since the very first humans existed, mankind has been locked in a battle against the physical laws that govern the universe. To survive, we have had to navigate our way around and through dangerous, adverse weather conditions, right the way through to having to fashion weapons and tools from the materials in the environment around us in order to survive on the plains of the savannah up to this present day. One innovation that stretches deep into human history is that of the crane, a tool whose basis is as simple as one could wish for in terms of how it works, but one that has allowed humans to construct magnificent structures from ancient times until the present day.

Today we barely think anything of a gigantic crane, towering above a city skyline for months at a time while they hoist unimaginably heavy and unwieldy objects higher than any person could ever achieve without its help, some so huge and even mobile cranes mounted on trucks like the ones here - https://www.heavyliftcranehire.co.uk and the largest cranes in the world here - https://fieldlens.com/blog/building-better/biggest-cranes/. As with any machine that allows us to accomplish fantastic feats of engineering, the history of the crane is a surprisingly rich one. They weren’t always the gargantuan, metal structures that we see interrupting the city skylines of today: their origins lay in ancient Greece, long before humans could ever has envisaged the sorts of uses for which we see cranes being employed today.

From Pulley to Crane

Though historians and people generally can still allow arguments to become heated when talking about how the stones that comprise the pyramids stones – the largest of these weights a staggering 50 tons - were moved into place, the history of the crane is somewhat more set in stone.

However, you cannot really talk about cranes without giving a nod to the invention of the pulley - https://info.designatronics.com/blog/pulleys-did-you-know, since both cranes and pulleys use similar mechanisms to achieve the same purpose: to increase man’s mechanical advantage over heavy and/or awkward objects in order to move them from point A to point B. For the pulley, we have Archimedes if Syracuse to thank. He is historically credited with the invention of the pulley a few hundred years (280 to 200) years BC. The basic of the pulley is that the more pulleys you can get to work in unison, the greater the mechanical advantage you have over the objects you are attempting to hoist. A 3-pulley system, for example, could be said to give you a mechanical advantage of 3:1.

One of the main drawbacks of a compound, multi-pulley system, however, is that even though the laws of physics dictate that more pulleys = greater mechanical advantage/leverage, one must consider the weight of the pulleys. The sheer weight of these devices makes them clunky, immobile, and generally an inconvenient system if you need to move the pulleys to another location. This problem is almost certainly what inspired the invention of the crane, which at its core is simple a more portable device that takes advantage of the physics of the pulley.

Cranes from the Ancients

The problem of heavy, immobile pulley systems prompted an ingenious solution, with the ancient Greeks most often being credited with devising some of history’s first examples of the crane. The evidence for this has been found within Greek temples - https://www.athensinsiders.com/blog/aegina-aphaia-building-the-finest-archaic-greek-temple. Hidden in stone blocks were the remnants of tools such as Lewis Irons and tongs, each item often used in conjunction with cranes in order to manipulate and move objects in various ways and in different directions.

Of course, the cranes one would expect to find in ancient Greece are quite far removed from the devices we see in urban settings today. Ancient Greek cranes would have been either man or animal-powered and most often utilised in the construction of buildings too tall to be constructed by human power alone. The shift from pure man-powered labour teams to crane-facilitated labour forces is also credited to a societal and even political shift in Ancient Greece where teams of professionals that made use of cranes became a more favourable option for construction.

The use of cranes wasn’t limited to the Ancient Greeks, either. One can find first-hand accounts from Vitruvius, which suggests that the Romans were instrumental in the improvement of Ancient Greek crane designs. One should cast their eyes on the Ancient Roman Tripastos crane as a prime example of this innovation - https://traveling-cook.com/evolution-cranehoist-ancient-rome/.

Modern Mutations

As society and technology progressed, so did the needs of the former and the usefulness of the latter. The French and Italians were also responsible for improving upon crane designs during the middle ages. Many cranes or crane-like devices aren’t used solely for construction. One only needs to think of a medieval battlefield to imagine similar devices such as the impressive trebuchet (more of a launching device, of course, but a mechanical offshoot nonetheless).

The treadwheel crane is a prime example of medieval/early modern use of the device, with a person having to hop into the wheel and move the wheel with their body in order to provide the force.

Modern-day cranes are much easier and less dangerous to operate, of course. The invention and use of more lightweight materials meant the phasing out of the wooden cranes that had been used throughout most of history since the invention of the crane itself.

It is also quite remarkable to think that the modern-day hydraulic cranes we see exerting unimaginable force on seemingly immovable objects have their roots in Blaise Pascal’s study of fluid hydrodynamics in the 15th century - https://www.biography.com/scholar/blaise-pascal. The industrial revolution facilitated the construction of increasingly large cranes able to lift entire boats into water, and tall enough to enable the construction of the sort of skyscrapers we see today.  From Sir William Armstrong’s invention of the first hydraulic crane in the 1840s, these massive devices have been improved upon drastically. Now we have a huge variety of cranes available to us for various uses: the railway road crane, mobile cranes, telescopic cranes, tower cranes, and truck-mounted cranes are just a few examples of just how far the crane has come.