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I wonder what permits are needed if I wanted to build a house with something like this.

I was just thinking on yesterday how we now have need to exercise because we do not do strenuous work anymore.

Thank you for the post. can't wait for the next 1

Kris De Decker


Thanks. Permits might be a problem. During the renovation project of the Canterbury Cathedral in the 1970s, when materials were hauled up with the 15th century medieval treadwheel crane, an accident happened when a load got out of control. One of the workers in the treadwheel broke his ankle.

Because of this incident the British Health and Safety Commission forbid further use of the wheel. Not sure what happened since then, but it would not surprise me if the use of human powered cranes is outlawed, at least in the UK...



Of course, treadwheels have a *terrible* problem with hypnosis and vertigo. You're making walking/climbing motions while staying still, your visual cues for the ground curve up and over your head in front of you, and there is the constant passing of slats providing an effect often called "highway hypnosis" in driving contexts.

It's to the point where modern health and safety requirements in the UK limit people to something like one minute of treadwheel operation before having to switch off for someone else.

And just consider the failure mode for a treadwheel attached to a 20 tonne weight when the operator trips and falls!



How about rocks on rocks? Wally Wallington moves 20,000lb rocks by teetering them on an off-center pivot and spinning them: http://theforgottentechnology.com/



It is possible once PO really sets in, we might see a rebirth of mechanical devices like these and others? Could we leverage our new materials and physics knowledge to create devices even more powerful yet lighter and more veratile than ancient methods? Or has too much been forgetten, thus forceing us to re-learn it all over again? I sometimes wonder if our modern engineers would be up to such a task.



Nice article! I have an amateur interest in pre-industrial technology and I really enjoyed this piece.

On permits, safety regulations and PO: Modern safety regulations are a result of a number of changes in the reality of labour over the past century or so; it is unlikely that those realities will hold up under a low-oil future.



This is sort of labor intensive technology would be great for kick starting African industrialization.

Unfortunately in the past too many economic aid projects in the developing world relied on capital intensive inputs which required scarce foreign exchange.



No doubt modern engineers could learn how to use the old tech, but I expect them to create new methods to meet new realities. Using electrical power if fossil fuel ever becomes unavailable. Though I suspect that has been done before.



Very interesting. This is one of the best sites on the internet.

Space cynic


One possible correction: recent research seems to point to the pyramids being fabricated (I.e. Concrete blocks) and not quarried/dragged/assembled.

If this proves correct, it does make the construction of those buildings much easier to explain.



Be assured that human powered lifting machines are still used today in construction, I'm an engineer and in one of my projects we needed to lift 2 I-beams to the height of 20m (60 feet) and it was done by a group of 3 people with an old manual crab winch !
I was amazed !



When I first started work as a steeplejack/rigger in the late 1960's when it was rare to see a crane, we used a Telegraph Pole(40 ft.long) that was guyed out,as you would a tent pole with an arrangement of ladders, bosuns chairs,winches, tirfors, snatchblocks and other assorted rigging tackle, to erect industrial steel chimneys,often well over 100ft.high. Even today there are still firms that use jacks,skates and timber every day for moving & erecting plant & machinery.

Name respectfully withheld


Fascinating article. A great look, professional layout. Some consistently-made grammatical errors and a physics "error" really leaped out though.

As for the grammatics:
"...could be powered by much more people and so less machines would be needed..."
should have been
"...could be powered by many more people and so fewer machines would be needed..."

That error was made in a number of places in the article. It's easy to fix, just get your editor to learn that rule: "Amounts of something" vs. "Numbers of something". Or, just run it through a grammar checker.

Before you think I'm some kind of a crazy stickler for the trivial, consider that there were some errors in physics as well. Both problems reinforced each other to make for some "screaming cognitive dissonance" in the reader (okay, just me :-) ), and also to make you look a little dumb. Sorry.

The physics error was that you referred to the 20% "loss" as if it reduced the *force* obtainable. Reduced force would be a result of static friction in the system which isn't really measurable like that. Percent loss is usually a measure of loss of *energy*, which wouldn't reduce the amount of *force* liftable. I don't think you don't know the difference between energy and force, but it looked a little bit like you might. And, that's a pretty important thing given your subject matter.

Alexander Lopez


The author seems to forget that those big ancient erections were made thanks to the usage of massive amounts of cheap manpower, a.k.a. slaves.

Slaves were so cheap and abundant that no one cared about technology or safety. With the arrival of industrial revolution work could be done faster using less people; a tendency that continues today with CNC machinery replacing handiworks.

While it's important to learn from the past, it's also important not to forget why those practices fell aside. Great work.

Kris De Decker


@ Alexander (#14): when it comes to the Ancients, yes. The medieval and early modern human powered cranes described in the article, however, were not operated by slaves. In fact, the improvement of the technology in the late middle ages was due to a shortage of labour. Technology that allows work to be done faster using less people predates the Industrial Revolution by many centuries.

Eugene N.


I'm in 8th grade right now, studying about the six simple machines. We're currently working on a project called the "Nifty Lifter", where the minimum requirement is to lift a 600 gram weight 5 cm off the ground with an input of 200 grams. Interested to learn more about how the ancients did it, I went ahead and googled, "Ancient lifting devices". This site came up, and I was instantly fascinated by your article. I've heard about the Roman treadwheel machines before, but ingenuity to the extent of multiplying lifting forces through combining such machines has never occurred to me. The well-written article certainly helped in the reading as well. The words read very smoothly, and I had no trouble understanding the mechanics of such machines. Thank you for this detailed article and very educational site.

Mark Welton


Yes - I found it fascinating too, like many of the other commenters here. And I too was brought up sharp by a certain Physics error. In comparing the inclined plane and the lever, you state that "The mechanical advantage of an inclined plane equals the length divided by the height of the slope. The mechanical advantage of a lever is the distance between the fulcrum and the point where the force is applied, divided by the distance between the fulcrum and the weight to be lifted." But by the (correct) definitions stated in the previous paragraph, what you have just described is the velocity ratio, not the mechanical advantage. Could be a source of confusion for a student of the subject.



"... lift weights that would be impossible to handle by most power cranes in operation today..." Respectfully apple to oranges. Today's construction materials & methods mean we don't need to construct cranes to lift such weight, but with we had the need were a cable of constructing the machinery. Don't get me wrong; I'm in awe at to what they where able to do in the past, but I'm equally in awe of our ability to fling craft outside our Solar System as well. Modern safety concerns aren't going away,, but they will adjust to meet new realities. In the event human power machines are needed they will be built, built SAFELY. Drives me nuts when others suggest has held back progress some in the other comments have.



I love this web site!! Thank you. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one in the world who realised there was a problem. Our dependency on fossil fuel is going to lead to the rapid demise of about 80% of our population. Based on my research things are going to get interesting between 2015 and 17. Electrical power does not solve the problem. So even if they figure out how to control fusion the problem doesn't go away. Our hubris has led us to believe that we can simply forget about ancient and proven technology. That will be our undoing and determine whether the survivors go back technologically a few hundred years when fossil fuels dry up or a few thousand, back to the stone age. Surviving is easy. Surviving and being comfortable and maintaining a semblance of civilisation is another matter entirely.
Thanks again.



Alexander Lopez, you are wrong. Yes some were built by slaves. But go to England or Scotland. Most of the extremely impressive architecture such as churches and castles were not built by slaves but craftsman. But you missing the salient point. All your machines are 100% dependent on finite fossil fuel. FINITE. So waffle on making idiotic political statements. The end game is the same.

Too Cautious to Give Out


Thank you soooooooo much! I'm in 7th grade doing a research report on the history of lifting devices, and this site helped sooooooooo much! Again, THANK YOU!



One aspect of the winch or capstan I did not see and am curious about - sorry I do not know the proper name, but they were (perhaps still are) used on oil rigs for maneuvering heavy equipment around. A horizontally mounted hub spinning under force of the rigs engine, a large rope over a single pulley is used for lifting - i.e. no complex series for additional mechanical advantage, but the rope is instead wrapped around the spinning hub with more wraps for lifting more weight. The result is that a man with one hand can lift several hundred pounds effortlessly.
Does anyone know what this is called, and is or was it used elsewhere?



@ Sue
It sounds like a snubbing winch. They are often used for lifting crab pots. They are good for when you are going to switch ropes you are pulling or the rope is so long that it would make the spool overly large.

Ed Williams


Any Safe ( Portable Powered) way of lifting a 200 lb person to heights of 500 feet on Communication towers?



Hello Kris,

Hand cranked lifts are still really really popular for certain construction jobs. See for example the Böcker ALP series of construction lifts:


P.S. Currently looking for a good low tech lifting/crane mechanism for 400kg straw bales to be used in construction. Any hints welcome!

Thank you for your work on lowtechmagazine!




Very good note. There are still some original antique cranes in good condition. One of them is in the cathedral of Strasbourg. A wheel crane that is a thousand years old. And it can be watched. https://quierodecorarte.com/antigua-grua-de-rueda-en-la-catedral-de-estrasburgo/



What type of cranes were used to build the US Capital Building, and The White House? What was the heaviest stone block that could be lifted in the early 1800's?

Paul Hercules Smith


Latest discovery in egyption stone quarry indcates Egyptins employed a compund machinemade of both rap (incline plane) and multiple pullys-https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/liverpool-expert-solves-mystery-pyramids-15382837



Great page with a ton of very useful info. I found it while looking for info to build my own (crane?) to move BIG rocks around my property from stockpiles of rock to final building/use site. I have lots of scrap steel and a few old trucks around and some mechanical goods to work with. Pluss extensive welding and electrical background coupled with ambition. Any suggestions, ideas, or web sites, etc would be greatly appreciated. I would need to be able to pick and move boulders from the size of an upright refrigerator on down and be able to lift them up to 24' vertically.
I am one man with six acres and full of dreams without a lot of financial means. Concrete, a backhoe, and hired labor are out of my reach just as time is to. 61 years of age has endowed me with much knowledge but never enough and a very finite amount of time of which the amount is unknown. So... one foot in front of the other, head down and ass up, shouldering what I can and let the rough end drag are the mottos to live by for me. I will persevere.

Alexandrine Maes


En France, dans la forêt de Guédelon, depuis plus de 20 ans, on construit un chateau avec les techniques du moyen age exclusivement. une grue humaine est utilisée pour monter les matériaux. chantier à visiter: https://www.guedelon.fr/en

Janet Edwards


Hi - Terrific article. I'm writing a novel set in Bruges in 1299, and have a scene featuring the harbor treadwheel crane. Your piece is very informative. I have scoured the only map I have of medieval Bruges and cannot find the snippet of the map you have here, but resolution on the map I'm working from is poor. Perhaps there's a second map of which I'm unaware. Was that image from Bruges? If so, can you clue me in to a nearby landmark that would help me locate it? (Happy to email you the image from which I'm working)

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