From muck and shovels to life on Mars – how building technology has evolved over 150 years

Construction has changed dramatically since CN was founded in 1871. Lem Bingley assesses some of the key breakthroughs that have come to define today’s industry

To most who work in construction, it may come as a surprise to learn that instant funds transfer is 150 years old this year. Starting in February 1871, telegraph operator Western Union began its service for wiring money from city to city, without the tiresome need to physically send cash or cheques.

Construction may have been among the slowest industries to catch onto the new-fangled notion of speeded-up payments, but there are many other ways in which technological breakthroughs have been embraced by the sector, often fundamentally transforming the nature of work since 1871 – the year Construction News was first published.

The march of machines

The most striking way in which the industry has changed since the Victorian era is through mechanisation. Steam power had long-since supplemented human and animal muscle by the late 19th century, but as the dawn of the 20th century approached the pace of change accelerated.

Karl Benz’s spindly motor car first chugged onto roads in 1886, and it was followed, in 1893, by Rudolf Diesel’s remarkable engine. A few years later, in 1896, Gottlieb Daimler produced the first motorised truck. His second, in 1897, put the engine at the front and set today’s truck template.

Surprisingly quickly, internal combustion took over from horses and carts. By 1910, cars and trucks outnumbered carriages and wagons in major cities like London, in part because they solved one of the great pollution problems of the day – how to cope with all the horse manure.

For construction workers, the start of the 20th century brought the first recognisable machine for mixing concrete, complete with tilting drum and internal blades to agitate the mix. Though it featured a pair a handles for laboriously rotating the drum by hand.

A less exhausting prospect arrived two decades later, in 1920, with the first mixer truck capable of the “simultaneous transporting and mixing” of concrete on the way to the site, as the patent application filed by Albert Bickel neatly put it. He promised “the elimination of a considerable portion of the labour” normally required to bring concrete into a project. The first concrete pump followed in 1927, further easing the task.

The early part of the 20th century saw parallel progress in machines to shift other heavy materials. Cranes were installed on trucks to make them more mobile and versatile, and in 1915 the first forklifts began lifting loads, though wooden pallets to simplify the task were not dreamt up for another 15 years.

Much of the progress seen in the first half of the 20th century was of course driven by military need in the great waves of mobilisation brought about by the First and Second World Wars. Forklifts, for example, only took off widely in the UK as a result of the war effort, with Coventry Climax mass-producing the machines in this country from 1946.

Similarly, the caterpillar tracks that were conceived for farming – invented by British engineer David Roberts in 1904 – were co-opted for British tanks.

The end of hostilities in the 1940s of course brought a boom in reconstruction, leading to many new inventions that are still at work today.

“The 1900 invention of Eternit by Austrian industrialist Ludwig Hatschek yielded a strong and light material, but the achievement came by mixing asbestos fibres with Portland cement, with unforeseen risks for human health”

In 1949, German firm Liebherr developed one of the most enduring symbols of construction – the mobile tower crane. The clustering of these temporary landmarks on the skylines of great cities has since become an icon of economic prosperity.

Liebherr and fellow German manufacturer Demag also brought to market the first generation of modern excavators. In the early 1950s, both firms put a long-reach hydraulic arm onto a 360-degree swivelling platform – one with wheels, the other with tracks.

1930: Switzerland’s Salginatobel Bridge used reinforced concrete

In the UK, Joseph Cyril Bamford founded JCB in 1945, initially cobbling together ex-military hardware to build tipper trailers. But the company stamped its mark on the industry in 1953 by mounting an excavator arm at one end of a tractor and a hydraulic shovel at the other, creating the first backhoe loader – a versatile machine better known simply as a JCB. More than three quarters of a million were built in JCB’s first 75 years.

JCB also played a key role in developing another onsite workhorse, the telehandler, combining elements of mobile crane and forklift.

While JCB’s Loadall of 1977 made telehandlers ubiquitous, it was not the first of the breed – an honour that belongs to the all-but-forgotten Giraffe, produced by Gateshead-based Liner from 1974.

Modern materials

Technological breakthroughs have also dramatically transformed the materials used across construction projects. Many new inventions took familiar materials and made them stronger or more durable. For example, today’s sleek glass-fronted office buildings depend on the 1874 invention of tempered glass.

Concrete, well known to the Romans, has been improved many times over the past 150 years to become the modern mainstay of construction.

Concrete is strong in compression, but relatively weak when pushed in other directions. Adding steel reinforcement helps the material to withstand bending forces or tensile loads.

“In the future, buildings may rely on concrete reinforced with carbon nanotubes – ultra-thin fibres that are the strongest material known to science”

Early uses of reinforced concrete varied widely, with mixed results. Attempts to quantify and standardise the use of reinforcement began in Switzerland, in 1904, drawing on the experience of pioneering Swiss bridge builder Robert Maillart.

The later development of pre-stressed concrete required a still more detailed understanding. A somewhat counter-intuitive idea, the deliberate squeezing of concrete by adding tension to steel reinforcement bars adds stiffness and strength.

The technique was developed for large-scale practical use by French engineer Eugène Freyssinet from 1928.

As with many facets of technology, progress has not been without its setbacks. Reinforcement not only allowed new structures to be built but also created new ways for them to fail. Putting the steel rebar too close to the concrete surface led to rusting, a process that caused expansion, damaging the structure from within.

JCB’s Mk II 3C backhoe at work in Bolivia

Other methods of strengthening concrete also brought problems. The 1900 invention of Eternit by Austrian industrialist Ludwig Hatschek yielded a strong and light material, but the achievement came by mixing asbestos fibres with Portland cement, with unforeseen risks for human health.

Similarly, early attempts to reinforce concrete with glass fibres, begun in the 1940s soon after glass fibres were first developed, ultimately failed because the alkaline cement slowly ate away the glass. Alkali resistant glass was subsequently used, but the stigma of failures in the 1950s and 1960s still lingers in the UK today.

The combination of carbon fibre and concrete appears – so far – to be a safer bet. First mooted in the late 1990s, the first full carbon-concrete-composite building was completed in Germany in 2020.

In the future, buildings may rely on concrete reinforced with carbon nanotubes – ultra-thin fibres that are the strongest material known to science. This technology remains a work in progress that promises significant improvements in strength and durability of concrete but also brings challenges, such as ensuring the nanotubes are spread evenly and not clumped together before the concrete sets.

Nine names to celebrate

Nine companies are vying for a special 150th anniversary award in the 2021 CN Awards, which recognise the Outstanding Contribution to the Industry since the entrant was founded. The winner will be announced in September.

The finalists cover companies of every shape and size, illustrating the wide range of specialisms that come together to complete even the simplest construction project. They are:

  1. Ardent Hire Solutions, which has created digital platforms to make plant hire safer and more productive.
  2. Lucas, which has pioneered the use of new technologies and says it is “fixated” on improving health, safety and wellbeing.
  3. OF Bailey, celebrating its centenary in 2021, says it puts its “core values of passion, integrity and excellence” into every building and infrastructure projects it tackles.
  4. Skanska Costain Strabag JV (SCS JV), Cementation Skanska and Hercules Site Services for transforming the efficiency of piling operations.
  5. Speller Metcalfe, a family business that turned 25 in 2020, and swears that size should be no obstacle to treating people fairly and working with integrity.
  6. Stantec, which says it has had a positive impact “on countless communities for more than a century”, and is determined to continue doing so.
  7. Supply Chain Sustainability School, founded in 2012, which has become the “go-to place for free CPD learning” and says it is an exemplar of collaborative supply chain management.
  8. Taylor Woodrow, celebrating its centenary, which counts the Mulberry harbours that enabled the D-Day landings among its long list of achievements.
  9. Tilbury Douglas, which cites the extraordinary effort to build the Birmingham Nightingale among its key contributions to the industry and society.

Computers and data

Progress in computers has transformed much of society, and the impression that digitisation has had little impact on construction is far from correct.

Almost everyone who works in construction relies on their mobile and email, inventions that trace back to key advances in hardware such as the silicon chip, 1959, the transistor, 1947, as well as the founding of the internet, 1969, and the web in 1989.

Computers began drawing schematics as early as 1960, when the first computer-aided design (CAD) packages appeared. More recently, CAD pioneer Autodesk became an influential proponent of BIM after publishing a whitepaper on the topic in 2002.

AI SpaceFactory’s winning design of a space habitat for astronauts

Today, dedicated construction software can be found to address all manner of tasks, including design and project planning; organising and allocating work; training and visualisation; tracking project progress and recording snags; plus of course record keeping and payments processing.

Work is also under way to bring the long-term trends of materials, machines and computers together through advanced techniques such as 3D printing with concrete. These notions may yet unite in some very far-flung places.

In 2019, a New York-based firm called AI SpaceFactory won a NASA competition to design a space habitat for astronauts to use on the surface of Mars. The winning entry was a tall, drum-shaped building, designed to be 3D-printed by robots from crushed Martian rock mixed with renewable bioplastic. In NASA’s battery of tests, the resulting biopolymer outperformed concrete in strength, durability and crush testing.

As that space-age example demonstrates, when it comes to progress in construction, not even the sky will be the limit.