Modern scaffold hoist technology is found on construction sites of all sizes around the world, making it simple and safe for workers to lug materials and equipment to high places without any compromises.
While the introduction of powered lifting solutions has allowed for buildings to be constructed more efficiently in the past half-century, humans have a long-standing relationship with scaffolding that stretches back into the mists of time.
Here are a few of the most incredible stories covering how scaffolding and lifting equipment has been used at different points in history by different civilizations and their enterprising architects. Without this fairly uncomplicated solution, many of the wonders of the world would not have been possible to create.
Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, France
Notre-Dame has been struck by tragedy recently, hitting the headlines after a fire took hold and destroyed both the spire of the cathedral as well as a large portion of the roof. However, this means that it is the perfect time to look back and consider the role that scaffolding has played in relation to this iconic building over the years.
Work on Notre-Dame was originally started in the mid-12th century, and it would take over 100 years for much of the construction to be completed, signalling just how slowly the pace of building progressed at the time.
Scaffolding sprung up in tandem with the walls of the cathedral, creating a place for workers to ply their trades and also delivering a degree of structural stability which would otherwise have been lacking. Most interesting of all is the combination of a tread wheel-based hoist system that was deployed alongside the scaffolding. This machine was powered by people, with the wheel literally being turned by the leg-power of workers walking within it.
The introduction of a scaffold hoist like this meant that the scaffolding itself could be fashioned from less weighty beams and more basic lashing materials. This is because it would not be expected to support the weight of vast pieces of masonry since these would instead be lifted and lowered with the tread wheel hoist.
Ironically enough the cause of the 2019 fire at Notre-Dame has been allegedly linked to scaffold workers smoking, although such claims have been denied by the firm responsible for the restoration work. While the wooden scaffolds of the past have long been superseded by metal equivalents, the roof of the cathedral was made of oak and thus allowed for the quick spread of the blaze. Notre-Dame has since reopened and held services, showing that it is returning to its former functionality as well as its hard-earned glory.
More generally it is worth noting that there were monks throughout the middle ages and beyond who specialised in working with scaffolds since the laborious and interminable construction of churches, monasteries and cathedrals across Europe during this period required skilled experts in this field. Working at height with wooden scaffolding, rope pulley systems and eventually chain hoists was no doubt rendered more challenging as these monks would invariably remain in their traditional robes, rather than wearing more practical clothing.
The construction of the two towers of Notre-Dame was reliant on people-powered scaffold hoists.
While the materials used to make modern scaffolding and hoisting solutions are tough, durable and designed to be used for decades without succumbing to wear and tear, the same was not true in ancient times, or indeed at any point prior to the 20th century when metal mining and manufacturing took off.
Because of this, finding evidence of precisely how the peoples of the past went about making the architectural wonders that are still around today is tricky. Wood decays and is easily destroyed, which results in a lot of the discussion surrounding ancient construction techniques involving a lot of educated guesses rather than irrefutable facts.
In the case of the vast pyramids that are synonymous with Egypt and its dynastic past, historians have extrapolated a number of interesting conclusions about the processes involved in erecting them with the limited technologies available.
Once clad in marble, the bare stones of the pyramids at Giza are still an imposing sight.
Many Egyptologists agree that scaffolding must have been deployed in this context, though not on the scale seen on modern construction sites. Instead, the scaffolds were set up to act as stepping stones, allowing the large carved blocks to be gradually lifted, positioned and then built upon one by one. Without this type of structure, it is unlikely that the pyramids would have been built to the significant scale that they exhibit.
Counter-claims made by researchers suggest that ramps were more widely used than scaffolds, allowing for the slow but gradual manoeuvring of masonry on pyramid sites. It seems likely that a mixture of these techniques would have been used, in combination with the use of counterweights, ropes and hoists to help realise the incredibly ambitious plans of Ancient Egypt’s most skilled architects.
The reason that scaffolding is preferable to ramp use as a solution to the problems of stone moving in the ancient world is that the struts of a scaffold and any hoisting assembly can be quickly put together. This goes hand in hand with the light weight of the finished article, which would not put undue pressure on the building as it was developed, nor require significant amounts of material to erect in the first place. Conversely, a ramp capable of supporting the weight of stones would itself need to be made from similar materials; in the case of Ancient Egypt, this meant sand and primitive bricks.
As with the tread wheel hoists of Notre-Dame, another important asset that was exploited in Ancient Egypt was that of pure people-power. Long-standing assumptions about the use of slave labour have been shattered in recent years, yet even if the workers were not being forced to fulfil their jobs, the labour would have been back-breaking and the conditions would have been extremely challenging. Putting an accurate figure on the number of people involved is difficult, but some estimates creep into the tens of thousands.
With technological improvements allowing for fewer workers to achieve more in less time, construction sites have become less crowded and much safer. Yet the fact that scaffolding remains a common feature demonstrates that this ancient idea still has a lot to offer.
Scaffolding workers are still sought after on 21st-century construction sites.
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