Although they are seen as a relatively modern invention, the history of the excavator reaches back almost two hundred years. Each stage of their development has been driven by a boom in industry and construction requiring increasingly complex mechanised solutions. In the early 1800s, even heavy construction work was still carried out by large teams of labourers using simple hand tools. The industrial revolution sweeping the globe needed large volumes of raw materials and the means to move these over long distances. Teams of men with basic tools were simply not up to the challenge, but advances in manufacturing and technology would soon change this.
In 1830s America, railroad construction was booming in an effort to provide a network of fast, direct connections between centres of commerce and industry. Speed was of the essence, with engineering firms earning bonuses for swift completion of the work. Inspired by this, a 22 year old inventor from Pelham, Massachusetts developed a solution. Known as ‘The grandfather of the hydraulic excavator’, William Otis, along with an engineer named Charles French, invented the first Steam Shovel. Created for the engineering firm Carmichael and Fairbanks for their contract building the Boston and Albany Railroad, it was revolutionary.
Sharing many features with modern excavators, the Otis Power Shovel was the first example of self powered earthmoving equipment. As internal combustion engines had yet to be invented, it was propelled on rails by a boiler and steam engine. A swinging boom attached to a fixed mast held a dipper arm and toothed bucket holding 1 cubic yard (0.76 cubic metres) of waste. The bucket was raised and lowered using a double drum chain hoist, triggered by a man on the ground. The boom was moved from side to side by two other workers using heavy ropes. In 1839, William patented a steam powered crane excavator, further improving on his design. Due to its cost, this took some time to become popular as immigrant labour was still so cheap. Eventually, his designs would be used on projects as large as the construction of the Panama Canal. Sadly, William died from Typhoid Fever aged just 26 and never lived to see the massive contribution he made to the construction industry.
The first hydraulic excavator would not appear until 1882, built by Sir W. G. Armstrong & Company in England. They realised hydraulic force was a far more efficient source of power for digging and employed it in a groundbreaking design. Used in the construction of Hull docks, the excavator used water in place of modern hydraulic fluid. Although many contest its status as a true hydraulic excavator, the original definition of hydraulic as ‘operated by water’ still holds true. However, it was something of a hybrid, as cables were used to operate the bucket with the cylinder operating multiplying sheaves. Before this, all excavators were cabled and this is the first acknowledged use of a hydraulic excavator in a practical application.
In 1897, the Kilgore Machine Company of America produced the Direct Acting excavator, the first all hydraulic excavator. This used four direct acting steam cylinders, doing away entirely with cables and chains. Being built almost entirely of steel, it was far sturdier and hard wearing than previous designs. The use of hydraulic cylinders meant every action of the excavator was cushioned, reducing wear on the machine itself. Its simple design reduced the number of working parts, making maintenance easier and reducing the likelihood of breakdowns. Like modern excavators, it could be operated by one worker, whose movement of the controls was instantly replicated by the machine itself. The bucket could be dumped by operating a foot pedal rather than relying on a second operator. In common with modern excavators, the engineers station also swung with the dipper rather than being part of a rigid frame. Again, despite its innovative design, the excavator struggled to gain the recognition it deserved.
After the second world war, the world experienced a period of industrial and economic recovery. New trade deals were secured and the damage of years of conflict had to be repaired. In 1948, two Italian brothers, Mario and Carlo Bruneri, designed the prototype of the first mass produced hydraulic excavator. The patent for this design was granted in 1951 but met with limited success. However, producers in other countries foresaw its widespread applications and in 1954 the French company Sicam obtained the patent. Successful marketing in France led to production by Priestman in England, Mitsubishi in Japan, Drott in America and Tusa in Spain. The brothers retained an interest in the production of the excavators and in 1963, the Yumbo excavator gained worldwide recognition.
Japan in the 1960s was in the midst of an economic boom requiring urban development to house an increasing workforce. Reduced space in built up urban areas demanded a more compact alternative to bulky traditional excavators. Spurred on by this demand, the Yanmar Construction Company produced the first mini excavator, the YNB 300. Its small frame and wheeled chassis allowed it to operate in more confined spaces and it was soon in widespread use. Founded in 1912, Yanmar were originally a manufacture of engines for heavy construction equipment. They are now one of the premier manufacturers of mini excavators, with branches worldwide. The success of the YNB 300 led to production of the YNB 600C, with increased operator comfort and performance. The addition of a swing excavator boom allowed this model to operate against walls, increasing its versatility.
Over the following twenty years, many manufacturers followed suit, with firms such as Kubota, JCB and Manitou releasing their own ranges of mini excavators. Mini excavator hire became a boom market, as the versatility of the equipment suited them to a wide range of applications. 1998 saw the release of the Yanmar Vi040, the first zero tailswing excavator and many mini and micro excavators soon followed. The development of excavator attachments vastly increased the range of jobs they could perform. Hybrid technology in plant machinery became common in the 2010s, lowering production and operator usage costs and increasing efficiency.
Excavator design continues to evolve and their applications become ever more complex. At SERV Plant Hire, we offer a wide range of excavator types and attachments to suit any project. Contact us to discuss your requirements, we will be happy to answer any questions and ensure you have the right equipment for any job.