Cranes are among the earliest tools ever made, and one of the construction machines that has evolved the most across the entire span of human history, changing in purpose and capability from an irrigation device to the tool that enables buildings to reach the heavens.

Depending on whether you define the crane as specifically a lifting tool as it would be used in crane hire today or whether the lever principle is sufficient, the crane is one of the earliest pieces of technology ever constructed, with the shadouf being used over 5000 years ago.

This formed the basis for the Trispastos, the three-pulley crane that was developed by the Ancient Greeks as a lifting device to allow heavy stones to be lifted above the heads of construction workers and change construction forever away from ramps and heavy stones to many smaller stones.

From there, the development of the crane became one of improved technology, building materials and power, with the treadwheel crane being the primary tool for lifting until the development of hydraulic cranes in the 19th century.

However, one common trend with the use of cranes is that they remained stationary for much of human history, with the first step of a construction project involving building the primary tool that will allow the building to commence.

This would only begin to change in the latter part of the 19th Century.


From The Rail To The Road

Cranes needed to be fixed to a certain location before they could be used, but there were attempts to make cranes more mobile that did not require much extra development.

The development of the railway meant that larger, heavier pieces of equipment did not necessarily need to remain entirely static. Flatcars, typically used to carry longer, more awkward pieces of cargo, could also be used to carry cranes.

This allowed for the rapid deployment of the new hydraulic, steam-powered cranes, which whilst primarily used to get stricken locomotives back on the rails, could also be used for construction, especially in industrial estates and docks where construction projects were near the rails.

The biggest developer of mobile cranes was Appleby Brothers, a machinery firm started by Charles and Thomas Appleby in 1858.

Less than a decade later, they had showcased a mobile steam crane platform that by the 1890s would become standard on the railways. Some of the cranes developed by 1910 were so powerful and useful they would remain in service for over 70 years.

After the death of the pair, Appleby Corp., managed by Henry Coles, started to produce cranes that were mounted onto petrol-electric homes, with others following suit not long after. Soon after this, Coles Cranes were acquired by Steel and Co. of Sunderland in 1939, ending this period of innovation.

However, Hiab, short for Hydauliska Industri AB, a Swedish company that was primarily known for manufacturing skis up until 1944, found an efficient way in 1947 to use a truck’s petrol engine (as opposed to a separate generator) to power a hydraulic crane, creating the first truck-mounted crane of its type.

This was the genesis of the modern mobile crane, with the main advancements coming in the form of additional telescopic booms to increase height and usability and the adoption of four-wheel-drive to enable versatile military use of mobile cranes.