In the Beginning: The Excavator

Think about an excavator. What do you see it doing?


We can all identify what this versatile machine can do and where we might find it in action. You may have pictured a large crawler excavator like the Volvo EC950F (One of Construction Equipment’s Top 100 new products in 2020) handling the tough stuff at a quarry. You may have pictured something on a smaller scale, like the EW60E Compact Wheeled Excavator handling some lot clearing. In either vision, you know without a doubt, that the excavator can handle it all. From demolition to dredging; digging to material handling, these versatile machines help get the job done with ease and efficiency. How did this modern marvel become what it is today?


The Excavator actually has quite a history dating back almost 200 hundred years. Can you imagine heavy construction work before its existence? Construction work was, at one time, performed by people using hand tools. The increasing need for movement of large quantities of raw materials during the Industrial Revolution proved a challenge in the face of man. How would this be overcome?


Industrial advances created a boom in railroad construction in the early 1800’s and in an effort to increase the speed at which work could be completed, a 22 year old, William Otis drafted the first Steam Shovel with the assistance of engineer Charles French. This was the beginning of self powered earthmoving equipment. The Power Shovel operated on rails with a boiler and steam engine, and included a bucket from an arm that was attached to a swinging boom. With the help of workers, this bucket could be raised and lowered by chain hoist and the boom could be pulled from one side to another using ropes. Otis went on to patent a steam powered crane excavator by 1839 which was a costly undertaking and took long to become more widely used. Otis died of Typhoid Fever at the young age of 26. In only 4 years, he contributed significantly to the construction industry, but would never get to see the result of the fruits of his labor.


By the late 1800’s, hydraulic force was recognized as a more efficient means of power. The first steps in the creation of hydraulic excavators actually used water, not hydraulic fluid. This version continued to use cables to operate the bucket. The first true, all hydraulic excavator came in 1897 omitting cables and chains from the excavator designs completely. This machine, built by the Kilgore Machine Company of America, was the first of the kind to provide a much sturdier body, fewer working parts, and the need for only one operator. Maintenance became easier and breakdowns more seldom.


Excavators may have taken some time to be recognized as the power house help on the job, but as we well know today, that changed! Continued industrial surges over time would bring about more significant contributions to the design and development. The first mass produced hydraulic excavator patent was granted to Italian brothers, Mario and Carlo Bruneri, in 1951, the same year Highway Equipment got its start! While that first production didn’t meet the expectations of widespread use that they had hoped for, other producers in various countries had their finger on the pulse of the development of the excavator and would come to succeed in marketing and gaining recognition of this workhorse you know and love today!


Resources: heavyequipmentcollege.com; Mining Foundation of the Southwest; Commercialwebservices.com


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