The crane is one of the first and most important simple machines ever invented, as it allowed for the construction of buildings that were taller than the average person using materials that weighed more than a person could carry.

That principle has, through millennia of evolution, led to cranes such as the Kroll K-10000 that can reach over 80m in the air and carry tonnes of heavy equipment to help construct skyscrapers and incredibly tall structures.

However, behind every modern crane hire was the evolution from a machine that fundamentally had not changed since the Age of Antiquity to the modern, powered and complex machines that make our modern skylines possible.

Here is the moment where everything in construction changed and how the crane helped civilisation take a giant leap forward.


Several Thousand Years Of Stagnation

From the invention of the treadwheel crane by the Ancient Romans in the form of the Polyspaston, the principle and fundamental design of cranes largely remained stagnant for at least 2000 years.

A team of labourers on both sides of the winch would use their physical strength combined with the mechanical advantage the larger wheels gave to lift 3000kg, and a wooden lifting tower could be constructed to create advanced cranes that could lift up to 100 tonnes with a lot of coordination and work.

However, once the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century AD, many of its ideas fell with it, only being rediscovered nearly 1000 years later as the treadwheel and wheelbarrow started to integrate themselves into the more labour-intensive medieval construction site.

Exactly how it was reinvented is unknown, although the two biggest theories are that it was inspired by early waterwheels, a similarly labour-saving machine used in mills.

Another theory is that De Architectura, Vitruvius’ seminal text on Roman construction and design that would have been available to many Catholic monasteries, was a direct inspiration.

Regardless, with some variations for use in harbours, the fundamental design of cranes would not change until the 19th century.


Birth Of The Hydraulic Crane

The first modern crane was invented in 1838 by William George Armstrong, who sent a letter to the Mechanics Magazine an idea he had of a hydraulic crane powered by water.

The way it worked was to use a ram that was forced down by a pressurised fluid regulated by a valve, which in turn would pull on a chain to lift the heavy load.

Mr Armstrong, a Tyneside businessman, had the opportunity to test his invention when the Newcastle Corporation decided to create a pipe system to bring reservoir water to Newcastle homes.

He successfully petitioned them to let him use the excess water pressure to power a coal crane at the Quayside, and it was so successful three more cranes of a similar design were added to the Newcastle docks.

This lead to the first dedicated hydraulic manufacturing location at Elswick works, which not produced over 100 cranes per year by the 1860s but also was commissioned to develop hydraulic bridges and dock gates.