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A Brief History of the Modern-day Crane

From primitive systems to modern-day machines, the crane has evolved throughout history. While the core aim to lift, lower, and manoeuvre heavy objects remains the same, technological advances throughout the years have seen the cranes we know today to be more effective and efficient than ever before. In this blog, we’ll explore the history of the crane and how our diverse crane fleet has evolved to where it is today.

The Earliest Cranes

The modern-day crane evolved from the early pulley mechanism. This is composed of a wheel and rope that can lift heavy objects to tall heights. Pulley mechanisms change the direction of applied force, which reduces the amount of force needed to lift a weight. The people of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) were the first to invent such a system in 3,000 BC. Known as the shadouf, it was used to lift water buckets to aid in irrigation. The shadouf consisted of an upright frame with a suspended pole or brand on a pivot. On the short end of the pole, a clay or stone weight worked to balance the lever. A bucket could be attached to the end of the pole, allowing workers to distribute water evenly and easily.


Although basic by modern standards, the shadouf was a revolutionary invention of its time. Around 1,000 years later, the Ancient Egyptians began using a similar design for their irrigation systems, before the Chinese adopted it around 1,600 BC. Several other civilisations later followed suit. Even today, many developing nations such as India and Pakistan still use the shadouf to move buckets of water more efficiently than by hand. 

The First Construction Crane

Evidence of the first cranes suitable for construction appeared around 600 BC in Greece. Prior to this, ancient Greeks used ramps to move materials and build structures. These early construction cranes were more than just simple primitive contraptions. Winches and compound pulley systems were added, which proved far more advanced than previous techniques. This made it possible for heavy blocks of stone to be lifted and carefully set into place using very few workers. Today in Greece, many extraordinary stone structures that were built by these cranes still stand, including temples such as the Parthenon. 


Soon after this, the Romans improved upon the crane used in ancient Greece. One of the first cranes used in Rome was the trispastos, which featured a single-beam jib, a rope, winch, and three pulleys. It had a mechanical advantage of 3:1, meaning that a worker could lift 150kg using only 50kg of pressure. The Romans then replaced winches with treadwheels, enabling just two workers to lift up to 6,000kg. This allowed for the construction of thousands of incredible buildings and structures that the Romans are renowned for.


Unfortunately, after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, cranes were not used again until the Middle Ages.

The Hydraulic Crane

The invention of the hydraulic press in the 15th century revealed a new understanding of fluid density, pressure, and incompressibility. This laid the foundation for the modern-day hydraulic crane, which was first invented in 1838 by William Armstrong. This crane incorporated a ram inside a closed cylinder. Pressurised fluids were used to force the ram downwards while a mechanism called a hydraulic jigger lifts the load.


Within a few years, hydraulic cranes were used in construction sites throughout England. It wasn’t long before this new technology spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world. During the Industrial Revolution, materials such as cast iron and steel were used to construct cranes rather than wood. This led to many cranes being installed at harbours to load cargo more efficiently.

The Modern Crane

The present-day hydraulic crane relies on the same principles developed by William Armstrong two centuries ago. However, modifications in materials and specifications have improved upon this design, allowing for heavier loads to be lifted to new heights. For example, a modern advancement saw water being replaced with an incompressible fluid such as oil. This enabled a more accurate transfer of pressure between pistons to increase lifting capacity and efficiency. 


Another innovation was the mobile crane. While they lift smaller loads, they offer benefits in compact construction scenarios. They can speed up projects, resulting in lower costs and faster completion. There are four main types of mobile cranes; the truck-mounted crane, the rough terrain crane, the floating crane, and the crawler crane. At St George Cranes, we have a range of mobile cranes available for hire. This includes our Mini Crawler Crane with a lifting capacity of almost 3 tonnes. Thanks to their crawler tracks that replace traditional wheels, the Mini Crawler Crane is ideal for construction sites with rugged terrain or confined spaces that larger cranes may struggle to access. 


Currently, the most powerful crane in the world is China’s Taisun crane. With a lifting capacity of 20,000 metric tonnes, it was built for the installation of large modules and structures. This includes semi-submersible platforms and floating production storage and offloading units. The Taisun requires nearly 50,000 metres of wire and can lift up to 80 metres. 



Today, we have many different types of cranes including Franna cranes, City cranes, Mini cranes, and All Terrain cranes. Each with various abilities, functions, uses, and lifting capabilities, modern-day cranes have enabled the construction of many iconic landmarks, buildings, and vertical cities. This includes our own Sydney Harbour Bridge, with the main arch being constructed by two creeper cranes. The crane makes construction and moving heavy loads easy, quick, and effective. For your next project, hire the right crane for your job from St George Cranes. With our diverse selection of high-quality cranes and experienced team, we’ve got you covered to ensure everything runs smoothly. Contact us today.


Date posted: May 16, 2024 | St George Cranes