The History of Cranes

Our ability to lift construction equipment has allowed us to create the world we live in today, and many of mankind’s greatest feats in construction and engineering simply would not have been possible without cranes.

Cranes have evolved immensely throughout history, and their use dates back much further than you may have considered before. Here, we will take you through the history of cranes from the ancient Greeks to those we use today, showing how construction and lifting has evolved throughout human history.

Mobile crane operating by lifting and moving an heavy electric g

Ancient Greek Cranes

Evidence shows that the ancient Greeks invented a crane-like tool for lifting heavy loads in the late sixth century B.C.E. Archaeological records show that there are distinctive cuttings for lifting tongs on Greek temples, which were presumably used for lifting heavy stone blocks during construction.

Prior to this, the Greeks had primarily used ramps to lift construction tools vertically upwards, which placed huge demands on human labour.

Over the next 200 years, historians have observed that the system of ramps to lift weight vertically upwards was eventually replaced with a winch and pulley system, resulting in builders using larger amounts of smaller stones as opposed to fewer larger ones. This winch and pulley hoist resulted in iconic constructions such as the Parthenon being created.

Some historians have attributed this shift to the volatile social and political conditions in ancient Greece at the time of the changes, and that it became far more preferable for fewer, highly-skilled workers to construct buildings than great numbers of uneducated labourers, hence why cranes came into wider use.

Ancient Roman Cranes

The ancient Romans also became reliant on cranes for their construction, initially adopting ancient Greek designs and going on to adapt them in order to make them more efficient.

The Romans invented a variety of cranes. Their simplest design, known as the trispastos, allowed a single man to lift an estimated 150kg. Other cranes, such as the polyspastos, could lift an estimated 3,000kg when operated by four men, and if the winch was replaced with a treadwheel could lift up to 6,000kg with just two men.

This lifting capability allowed the ancient Romans to revolutionise construction and create the iconic structures that are still evident in the Italian capital today. These progressions paved the way for further advancement in the field of construction and the eventual creation of the cranes we use today.

crane in the city

Medieval Cranes

In the Middle Ages, the treadwheel crane reached prominence when it was brought back into use in Western Europe, having previously fallen into disuse following the demise of the Roman Empire.

Cranes offered a safe, efficient and more cost-effective way of vertically transporting goods. This lead to the method being applied to harbours, mines and building sites across Europe, and played a pivotal role particularly in the iconic lofty Gothic cathedrals of the era.

As well as being powered by treadwheels, sources from the time also suggest that medieval cranes were powered manually by windlasses with radiating spokes and cranks. Cranes consistently evolved throughout the Middle Ages, gradually appearing all over Europe.

Modern-Day Cranes

The Industrial Revolution created an even greater need for cranes, as well as the need to make them more efficient and easier to operate.

These ongoing demands led to Sir William Armstrong inventing the first hydraulic crane in the 1840s, with his company producing over 100 cranes per year by the early 1860s.


These innovations led to the modern cranes we rely on today, allowing the construction of spectacular buildings such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE. At Anglia Handling, we can help you make the most of modern construction techniques, with our services including servicing, repairs, inspections and vacuum lifting equipment hire. For more information, contact us today by calling 01767 312125.

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