Big Wheels Keep on Turnin’

I was looking at a picture the other day that most readers are undoubtedly familiar with – Pieter Breugel’s The Tower of Babel:

Click on it to enlarge if you like. In the foreground there are some figures – apparently the Kingly figure with a few serfs bowed down in front is Nimrod. You know, I am certainly no bible scholar, but I managed to make it to my mid-forties without knowing that ‘nimrod’, a term of insult not uncommonly shouted out in my primary school days, actually referred to a historical person. Anyway, the oil painting by Breugel is quite stunning I think, especially since it involves construction of a tower! Looking more closely at it I noticed the timber framed devices and structures of various sorts, and a few different sorts of cranes – by far the most intriguing is this one:

Again, click to enlarge. What a funky looking thing! See the two men walking in one of the wheels? I did some digging and researching, and it turns out that is a type of crane called a treadwheel crane. Like a wheel for mice to run in, these cranes operated on the basis of having several people walk in the wheels. The crane pictured in the painting is quite accurately done – here a 1886 photograph of a treadwheel crane from Brugge, Belgium, attributed to Roger Kokken:

Wikipedia has a write up on these cranes of course. I also found a great site with an excellent article on the history of human-powered cranes: Low Tech Magazine. Worth a bookmark – also most definitely worth a read is the article on Chinese wheelbarrows on that site.

What appeals to me about them is their quirky shape and their fairly complex woodwork – here’s another example from Brugge – a modern reconstruction:

These cranes with their boarded up covering were quite durable – several of the one’s I’ve come across in my reading seem to have lasted 300~400 years, and such cranes were in use until the latter part of the 1800s when steel cranes began to supplant them.

I wonder what sort of emergency braking mechanisms these cranes had, if any? I mean, you can imagine the consequences with some huge stone lifted high up and then one of the walkers trips…

I’ve come across many references to cranes and their construction in old French Carpentry texts – Mazerolle, for example, shows a couple of small carpenter’s hoisting cranes – chèvre – in the first part of the book, along with other carpentry tools of the day (mid 1800’s):

A similar crane, and all it’s parts, is shown in the J. Krafft book Traité Sur l’art de la Charpente Théorique et Pratique at the library of Congress in D.C. . Also in that text is shown a larger version for lifting stones:

While this looks at first glance like a treadwheel crane, the front elevation view shows that such is not the case.

It’s a great pleasure, if not a voyage of discovery, to look through old carpentry texts to see the sorts of work once considered part of the trade – cranes, timber centering for bridges arches and tunnels, wall reinforcement,  performing arts stages with moving floors, etc.  The replacements for wood in all these fields is invariably metal, which, while it serves it’s purpose admirably, is a product of comparatively high technology, high embedded energy, and industrial organization.

I suspect such a system as we have is but one of the many unsustainable bubbles piggybacked upon cheap, abundant sources of concentrated energy (timber then coal, and finally petroleum). It would not be far-fetched to think, given the opposing directions in which the supply and demand curves for energy are heading, that some of these old-fashioned devices made of timber, and the techniques for constructing them may one day have use again. In a funny way, I hope so. I’d rather make a traditional Chinese wooden wheelbarrow than buy a metal Chinese-made piece of junk from a box store. Wooden trestles, wooden cranes – bring ’em on!

5 Replies to “Big Wheels Keep on Turnin’”

  1. Chris,

    Always a pleasure to see what you've managed to dig up for our enjoyment (and edification). Maybe those Flintstones' cars weren't so far off the mark?


  2. Do you know this website .
    It shows the work of Petr Ruzicka, a very inspiring Czech carpenenter who I hope to meet later this year. He's cranes and devices are quite impressive and he actually does a lot of work with them.

    I have to pay another visit to Brugge as soon as I am back in Belgium to investigate that crane.

    Accidents with those devices happened often and are famous and well documented. As far as I know, safety mechanisms where not installed.

    Would love to make one of those….

  3. I didn't know that crane picture it is very 'Brugge la morte'. Death Brugge, as it downfall started in medieval time and was very present in the nineteenth century. For the reconstruction they seem to have made the crane with a very steep angle. Possibly to avoid interfering with the waterway.
    Quite similar in build are wooden windmills. I remember seeing them, internet confirms that Brugge has still 4 of his 29 windmills standing on the outer walls of the town. The oldest one is dated around 1765

  4. Steve,

    thanks for your comment! Speaking of Flintstone's cars, there is an article on Low-Tech Magazine about wood-fueled cars..


    good to hear from you, and thanks for the link. I hadn't come across that Czech carpenter's site before but it was quite interesting. He shows a treadwheel crane in action, both with photos and a video, and it looks like these wheels had a operator at the side with a brake.


    your comment was most appreciated – I hadn't heard of 'Brugge la morte' before – tell me more. These treadwheel cranes do share some structural similarities with rotating windmills, I agree.


  5. The crane on the 1886 picture was not in Bruges but in Mechelen. It has been removed in 1887.

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