Every industry has its eureka moments; those times at which an innovation is discovered which completely alters the way work is carried out.
This is especially true of construction since even relatively minor breakthroughs can lead to significant improvements in productivity, efficiency, and safety.
To demonstrate how much construction has evolved over the centuries, here is a brief rundown of the technologies and techniques that have had the biggest impact during different historical periods.
The use of scaffolding is important in the modern construction of all kinds, yet it is also one of the most ancient and important techniques of its kind.
Experts believe that 17,000 years ago people were using scaffolding while they still lived in caves, even if the purposes for its use at this point were not directly related to building as we understand it in the 21st century.
In particular, Lascaux Cave in France is believed to have been the site of early scaffold use at this point, with the poignant paintings on the wall and ceiling being produced with the help of just such a structure. The presence of socket-like holes in the face of the rocky walls is seen as evidence that those that dwelt there were familiar with using scaffolding to allow their artistic and cultural expressions to be made more easily in hard to reach places.
No doubt the materials used in these prehistoric scaffolds were sourced from the surrounding forests, while today the steel or alloy tubing still replicates this basic function.
Wattle & Daub
Early man is thought to have taken shelter in naturally occurring structures, prior to the development of deliberate building practices. One of the earliest examples of humans combining materials to create buildings and denote boundaries comes in the form of wattle and daub.
Wattle and daub are thought to have arisen around six millennia ago, with examples found throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. This suggests that the technique was actually developed independently within different civilizations, indicating that it is a logical progression from simply interweaving branches to reinforcing them with soil, dung and plant matter.
While incredibly crude by modern standards, it is effectively a precursor to the plastering techniques which are still deployed to this day and is undoubtedly a development that dramatically improved the quality of life for those cultures that mastered it.
The use of wattle and daub persisted for centuries and is still used in some parts of the world today.
It could be argued that bricks were being used to construct buildings prior to the first examples of wattle and daub, but it was no until 3000 BCE that humans really mastered the art of making these smaller blocks in a way that allowed for both practicality and durability.
The Indus Valley civilization is one of the many to have developed bricks as a concept, but it was also one of the first to use fire to temper the bricks and turn them into something truly useful.
Fired bricks became the norm in China a little earlier than this, although here they were more commonly chosen as a material for flooring, rather than as an option for building walls.
Brick broke new ground thanks to its versatility, allowing for the creation of vast domed structures such as Sri Lanka’s Jetavanaramaya stupa. It also was far less labor-intensive to produce than the blocks of stone that other civilizations embraced.
Ramps & Levers
Much is made of the incredible achievements of the Ancient Egyptians, and their architectural triumphs can still be seen in the 21st century, many thousands of years after they were first erected.
The vast stone blocks which make up the pyramids of Giza are an impressive example of early quarrying and masonry. However, it is the fact that they were so precisely positioned in spite of their dimensions and weight that makes this all the more jaw-dropping. While a modern construction site will rely on the likes of a scaffold hoist and other heavy lifting equipment to handle the largest loads, such tools were not available at the time of the pyramids’ creation.
To overcome the obstacles they faced, the architects of Ancient Egypt are known to have used a combination of ramps and levers to get the blocks into place. There is still argument over exactly how these were built and arranged, but a combination of long, straight ramps leading up to the ever-growing pyramid, along with diagonal ramps running up its sides, is the most widely held solution.
Levering methods were undoubtedly incremental, with repeated prying and raising of blocks over extended periods allowing them to slowly but surely be placed where designers intended. Wooden beams, pallets and pivot points are assumed to have been used, although much of the current thinking is purely theoretical as these materials have not survived to provide first-hand evidence of the techniques involved.
While some of the earliest construction techniques have been tougher to pin down in terms of their precise era of development, when it comes to the crane it is possible for archaeologists to be fairly confident that this type of equipment emerged around 500 BCE in Ancient Greece.
While the cranes of this era have long since been lost, the stones which they shifted into position still bear the telltale markings that heavily hint that a simple yet effective framework with pins and pulleys was used to position them.
This reconstruction of an ancient crane design shows the impressive complexity of the mechanics involved.
The load capacities of these first cranes can also be guessed at thanks to modern assessments of the weights of individual stone blocks still present in the ruins which litter much of Greece. With the largest blocks tipping the scales at around 20 tonnes, there is little doubt that the emergence of cranes helped to make much more complex construction work possible.
The crane also became a staple of construction in Ancient Rome, where adaptations were made and it became possible for operations to be carried out by fewer workers, requiring less physical exertion in the process thanks to the addition of treadwheels.