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No flow of merchandise without loader cranes

What does the bird “crane” have to do with construction cranes?

It’s impossible to think of a world today without construction cranes. Whether used in global trade as a tool for loading cargo, or in the construction of buildings or large technical projects – cranes are among the most important mechanical devices in human development.  But who invented the crane? What do cranes tell us about society in antiquity and why do some people cry when they see them? Below you can learn fascinating titbits about cranes, their potential as ballet dancers and as landmarks.

From a purely technical perspective, a crane is considered a device operated manually or with motors for the vertical and horizontal movement of heavy loads. It is generally used for the loading and unloading of ships (general cargo and containers), trains and trucks in assembly halls and warehouses as well as in structural engineering. Cranes can be land-based or used on the high seas. They can be mobile or permanently installed. Numerous variants of cranes are in operation – are you familiar with the following terms? Cantilever crane, gantry crane, loading bridge, telescopic crane, crawler crane, travel lift, container bridge. This is just a small selection of crane names and it would be easy to continue the list. By the way, did you know that a fishing rod basically works on the same principle and that an excavator is actually a crane for bulk materials?

Developed by the Greeks and named after a bird

The appearance of the lifting device, with its vertical column and a boom that usually points up at an angle and can rotate, recalls the long neck and beak of a standing bird, the crane. For that reason, the construction was already named after the bird in Ancient Greece, etymologically based on the Ancient Greek term “ὁ γέρανος” (“Geranós”, the crane). Over the course of time, the original name was simplified into “crane”, a word that to this day refers to the lifting equipment as well as the bird.

Where workforce is scarce, knowledge becomes the trump card

Lifting machines that operated with skilfully positioned winches and pulleys were introduced and developed in Ancient Greece in the late 6th century BC. This technology largely replaced simple ramps as the main aids for vertical transport. Some historians believe that the fragmented political situation in the Greek city-states led to this development. Using small and professional construction crews was just more feasible than the ramp technology, which is mechanically simpler but requires the labor of huge numbers of slaves. Such free slave labor was common in autocratic societies such as Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia but couldn’t be mobilized for the small states of Greece.

Invented in Greece, perfected by Romans

Cranes played a particularly important role in Roman construction, who after all shaped the cultural history of humankind with their numerous monumental buildings. The Romans adopted cranes from the Greeks and significantly improved their performance capacity so they could lift even heavier loads. They were also the first to equip cranes with large treadwheel drives, for example. There are numerous Roman buildings with extremely heavy stone blocks at remarkable heights. Rising about 19 meters above the ground, the architraves (horizontal beams) and edge ledges of the world-famous Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, Lebanon, for example, weigh slightly over 100 tons. The Trajan’s Column in Rome is also no stranger to superlatives: the Roman builders constructed a crane that hoisted the 53.3 ton capital block to a height of 34 meters.  

Whether at shipyards, on oil rigs or harbour quays: Cranes play a key role

Why lift containers when you can lift an entire ship?

Cranes were developed continuously since their first applications. Not only did the cable winch construction become increasingly complex and efficient, the dimensions of the booms and the heights of the cranes also continued to break records. The current record holder is “Taisun”, which stands at the Yaitan Raffles shipyard in China’s Shandong Province. With a height of 133 meters and a span width of 120 meters, the crane enables extraordinary feats in the modular construction of oil rigs and huge specialized ships. The heaviest weight that Taisun has ever lifted was an incredible 20,133 tons in April 2008. This weight is roughly the same as about 10,000 mid-size class sedans. Of course the hoisted load did not consist of that many vehicles. Instead – no less impressively – a barge completely filled with water was lifted from the harbor basin with no problems.

No flow of merchandise without loader cranes

Whether at shipyards, on oil rigs or harbor quays: Cranes will continue to play a key role in everyday life and continuously perform superlative feats. And by now, the maximum lifted weight is no longer the only important aspect. The speed of the loading and unloading is important, regardless of whether it is for a container ship or at a dry dock along the “new Silk Road”, since – as everyone knows – time is money. It is therefore not surprising that crane operators are highly specialized experts who also benefit from helpful electronics. To pick up containers, modern gantry cranes have highly efficient clamshell equipment, the so-called “spreader“. Some, for example, can pick up two 40-foot or four 20-foot containers in one lift – and experts think that this is far from the cranes’ maximum threshold. The reach of the booms is equally astonishing: The Super-Post Panamax cranes in Rotterdam protrude over the quay edge by 50 m – that corresponds to as many as 22 container rows.

Cranes are also landmarks and “ballet dancers”

Cranes aren’t just profane utilitarian constructions, they often become identifying landmarks. Examples are the former dome crane in Cologne or the lovingly named “Samson” and “Goliath”, two port cranes in Belfast. Residents grow fond of cranes, which can even become main local attractions, such as the Medieval “Żuraw“ crane gate in Danzig, Poland (are you surprised, by the way, that Żuraw is the Polish word for the bird species crane?) During its installation, the “Kockums crane”, a 138 metregantry crane in Malmö, Sweden, was also not just one of the largest cranes in the world but a city landmark. Since it wasn’t utilized sufficiently, it was sold to South Korea for one symbolic US Dollar. Many residents wept when it was removed, which is why the crane was called the “Tears of Malmö” at its new site.

If cranes are able to move not only loads, but also people’s hearts, then it’s not so far-fetched to hold an artistic crane ballet. In 2014, 14,000 people attended a crane ‘ballet’ performance held at a 21-hectare construction site for a new district in north-east Vienna. 30 cranes performed a choreographed ballet to the 15-minute “Crane Lake” symphony. And when are you getting your crane operator’s license?

Timelapse video of the “Crane Lake” ballet