Digging up the past: A history of excavators (Part 1)

Cable-operated excavators were the earliest documented self-powered earthmoving machines.
Image credit: Daniel Christensen 

Excavators have long been a staple of the earthmoving scene, first taking the form of cable-operated machines that were the earliest documented self-powered earthmoving machine, and later being replaced by the hydraulic machines we recognise today.

For most of the 19th and early 20th century, cable excavators dominated the earthmoving landscape. The world’s first mechanised steam shovel and excavator was the Otis steam shovel, invented by Englishman William S Otis in 1835. At the time, this was one of the most groundbreaking developments in earthmoving.

A scale working model of the Otis steam shovel, patented in 1839.
Image credit: Historical Construction Equipment Association 

Although the first steam shovel had been devised nearly four decades earlier, in 1796, by Grimshaw of Boulton & Watt, Otis’s patented shovel was the first to use a mechanised boom and a single bucket to remove dry earth. Otis’s shovel was a staple of the construction and mining industries until the late 19th century and was manufactured – with some major modifications – until the 1930s.

Over time, this evolved into the partial swing railroad shovel, so called because it was mounted on rail tracks and unable to rotate through a full 360 degrees.

An early Bucyrus railroad shovel with independently rotating boom.
Image credit: opular Science Monthly, Volume 62 

In 1882 the Bucyrus Foundry and Manufacturing Company built its first steam shovel. That same year British company Sir WG Armstrong & Co. produced the earliest recorded hydraulic shovel. The first fully revolving machine, produced by English company Whitaker & Sons, appeared two years later, in 1884. The Kilgore Machine Co. of Minneapolis, Minnesota, patented the hydraulic shovel in 1897.

An advertisement for Kilgore Machine Company’s Direct Acting excavator, the first all-hydraulic excavator that was patented in 1897, which used four direct-acting steam cylinders and no cables or chains.
Image credit: OEM Off-Highway 

One of the most famous applications of steam shovels was the digging of the Panama Canal, which began in 1904.

Steaming across Panama: Bucyrus and the digging of the Panama Canal

One of the most famous applications of steam shovels was the digging of the Panama Canal, which began in 1904. Seventy-seven of the 102 excavators used were supplied by Bucyrus.
Video credit:  Caterpillar Global Mining 

One hundred and two steam shovels were used for this massive undertaking, 77 of which were supplied by Bucyrus, with the remaining 25 supplied by the Marion Power Shovel Company.

A Bucyrus steam shovel working in the Panama Canal. Of the 102 shovels that worked on the canal, 77 were from Bucyrus; the Marion Power Shovel Company supplied the remaining 25.

An image from 1908 showing a Marion Steam Shovel Model 90 at work on the Panama Canal.

In the 1920s, companies began producing machines that were powered by gas and oil, rather than steam, and mounting them on wheels and crawler tracks, rather than rails, for increased mobility. In 1931, almost 100 years after the introduction of the Otis steam shovel, the last railroad shovel was shipped. The same decade saw the development of the quarry and mine shovel, most notably in the form of the Bucyrus 120-B in 1925, which combined the robustness of the railroad shovel with the 360-degree capability of the stripping shovel and revolutionised the excavator industry.


Eric. 2011. A quick history of the cable excavator. Headwater Equipment.

Gradall Industries. 2017. 1944: The first Gradall excavator.

Haddock, K. 2002. Cable excavators. The Earthmover Encyclopedia. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Co.

Haddock, K. 1998. Hydraulic excavators. Giant Earthmovers: An Illustrated History. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing.

Orlemann, E. 2003. Hydraulic mining excavators. Power shovels: The World's Mightiest Mining and Construction Excavators. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Co.

Orlemann, E. 2000. Building Giant Earthmovers. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Co.

Ritchie Wiki. 2013. Hydraulic excavator.

Ritchie Wiki. 2010. Cable excavator.

Sinclair, J. 1969. Quarrying Opencast and Alluvial Mining. London: Elsevier.

Tractor & Construction Plant Wiki. n.d. Hymac.

Click here for Part 2

28 Mar 2017

By Robyn Grimsley
Share & Bookmarking