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Modern construction sites today are teeming with different kinds of heavy, and not so heavy, construction vehicles and other equipment. While some have very ancient origins, others are only just over 100-years-old, give or take.

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With that in mind, here are some of the most notable milestones in the evolution of modern construction equipment the world over. 

What are some of the major milestones in the evolution of heavy construction equipment?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the most notable milestones in the evolution of modern construction equipment. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

Please note this is not intended to be a comprehensive history of heavy construction equipment. It is merely intended as a very brief overview of some of the most notable milestones and developments. 

1. Beasts of burden were the engines of early construction equipment

history of construction equipment ancients
Source: Eric Kilby/Flickr

Since antiquity, most construction equipment, if it could be called that, was man or animal-powered. Whether that be simple levers, pulleys, to other more complex forms of machinery, the brunt of the work was carried out using pure muscle power.

But many of the basic principles behind modern heavy machinery would be established over time. Specifically the principle of mechanical advantage, thanks to the work of Archimedes

But, it would take until the late-1600s onwards for true “heavy” construction equipment to rise. As technological innovations, like steam engines, became available, especially in a portable form, heavy machinery would grow complexity and size. 

2. Heavy construction equipment, like cranes and piledrivers, have been in use since ancient times

history of construction equipment rome
SourceAlex1011/Wikimedia Commons

Construction equipment, especially heavy equipment, has been in use since antiquity. One of the first examples were utilized by the great Roman engineer Vitruvius.

Examples of his surviving writings describe early heavy equipment, some similar to modern-day cranes. These cranes were usually of wooden construction and often made use of a treadwheel for power. 

In his treatise De ArchitecturaVitruvius gives fairly detailed descriptions of these machines and how they were intended to be used. 

The Romans also developed other kinds of heavy equipment, like piledrivers, that were often used, like today, in the construction of bridges. Today things like piledrivers are far more sophisticated and powerful things. 

3. The advent of steam power was a major leap forward

history of construction equipment traction
An Aveling and Porter traction engine, Source: Rob Mitchell/Wikimedia Commons

The invention of the steam engine, especially in a portable form, would prove revolutionary for construction equipment. Older forms of drawn machines could now be super-boosted by replacing animals with more powerful steam engines. 

New construction equipment like traction-engined tractors could be built and put to work. Other pieces of equipment like steamrollers also began to appear.

Other early pieces of steam-powered heavy machinery include steam-powered dredgers and steam excavators. 

Traction engines first appeared in the mid-1800s, largely thanks to the work of Thomas Aveling. Known as “The Father of the Traction Engine”, Aveling’s creation would revolutionize construction forever.

4. The internal combustion engine was another big development in construction equipment history

history of construction equipment fordson
Source: Jarek Tuszyński/Wikimedia Commons

The next major milestone in the development of construction equipment was the invention of the internal combustion engine (ICE). Early engines primarily used either kerosene or ethanol as a fuel source, but some early models also made use of diesel (which is the primary kind today).

Largely replacing older steam engines as the primary power source, ICE heavy machines began to be put to use all around the world. Early pioneers, like Henry Ford & Son Inc’s Fordson, would begin to mass-produce ICE heavy machines, like general-purpose tractors, in the late-1910s.

5. Another major development was the replacement of mechanical transmissions with hydraulics

evolution of heavy machinery hydrualics
1954 Hydraulikbagger, Source: Mobile Hydraulic Tips 

Another major development on the road to modern construction equipment was the advent of hydraulic systems. The principle of hydraulics was famously established by Blaise Pascal in the mid-1600s.

But, interestingly, there is some evidence of hydraulics being utilized in ancient times too. Whatever the case, one of the earliest applications of hydraulics in construction equipment was in the late 1800s. 

Sir W. G. Armstrong built one of the first excavators that made use of hydraulic systems rather than mechanical transmission systems using things like cables. This machine was steam-powered and was used to help construct dockyards. 

The next notable all-hydraulic excavator was the Direct Acting excavator built by the Kilgore Machine Company in 1897. But it would take almost another century for modern hydraulic construction equipment to really appear. 

“Demag (now Komatsu) created the first 360°, all hydraulic, track-driven excavator as we know it today. The 1954 Hydraulikbagger, was powered by a 42-hp, 3-cylinder diesel and capable of 2.5 mph while carrying about a half yard of material. It was compact, efficient, agile, and productive, especially for light and moderate construction projects.” – Mobile Hydraulic Tips

6. Tracked vehicles first appeared in the early 1900s

evolution of construction equipment tracks
1901 Lombard Steam Log Hauler, Sourcecliff1066/Wikimedia Commons

A lot of modern construction equipment, like tracked backhoes, excavators, and bulldozers, tend to make use of continuous tracks (sometimes known as caterpillar tracks) rather than wheels. 

By replacing wheels with a complete band or tread of track plates, the larger surface area distributes the vehicle’s weight on soft ground without sinking. They were first conceived in the 1830s by a Polish mathematician, and inventor called Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński

After various experiments into the technology throughout the 1800s, it would not be until the early-1900s that the first commercially successful heavy machinery using tracks would appear. Patented in 1901 by Alvin Orlando Lombard, the Lombard Steam Log Hauler was a great success.

He would later go on to create the first commercial tractor crawler that is the great-granddaddy of modern tracked construction vehicles. The technology would also be militarized during WW1 when the first tanks were developed. 

7. Bucket-wheel excavators first appeared in the 1920s

construction equipment bwe
Source: LutzBruno/Wikimedia Commons

Some of the biggest, and heaviest, construction vehicles around today are bucket-wheeled excavators (BWEs). Today they can be ginormous like the Overburden Conveyor Bridge F60, which can trace their roots to the 1920s.

Usually used for surface mining, these machines effectively act as continuous digging machines that remove overburden at the same time as the chew up the ground. While the overall concept of them hasn’t changed much since then, they have grown enormously in scale since the end of WW2.

Some of the first extremely large BWEs were commissioned in 1950s Germany, and, like today, were designed for lignite mining. 

8. Bulldozers are the workhorse of any construction site

construction equipment bulldozer
Working early bulldozer, SourceAnna Frodesiak/Wikimedia Commons

Bulldozers are effectively large and powerful tractors with an enormous metal plate (dozer blade) bolted on the front. Usually used to shunt around large amounts of soil, sand, rubble, or other construction waste, they can be either tracked or wheeled.

Today they are a ubiquitous piece of construction equipment, but they only first appeared in the 1920s. Initially, bulldozers were adapted from older farm tractors, but in 1923, farmer James Cummings and draftsman J. Earl McLeod made the first designs for the first, true, bulldozer.

9. Dump trucks are another invaluable piece of equipment for any construction project

history of construction equipment dump trucks
Modern dump truck, SourceJohann H. Addicks/Wikimedia Commons

And finally, another important step in the evolution of modern construction equipment was the development of the dump truck. Also known as a tipper or dumper truck, they are thought to have first been conceived in the late 19th Century.

One of the first appears to have been the Thornycroft steam dust-cart that was developed in the mid-1890s and featured a specially designed tipper mechanism. 

On of the first motorized dump trucks was developed by The Fruehauf Trailer Corporation, Galion Buggy Co., and Lauth-Juergens, among many others, around 1910. At about the same time, other companies like Wood Hoist Co. introduced hydraulic versions. 

The rest, as they say, is history. 

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