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What Is a Steam Crane?

Jordan Weagly
Jordan Weagly

A steam crane is a type of crane powered by pressurized steam and used primarily in the 1800s. The steam that powers the machine is produced by an attached boiler and is used to fuel the various components of the steam engine cranes. Once a common sight at many docks and industrial facilities, a steam crane provided an effective means of lifting materials that might otherwise be impossible to move. Steam was eventually replaced by fossil fuels as a primary energy source, and these cranes fell out of popular use.

Many steam cranes had a similar design that resulted from the heavy metals and machinery used to make the lifts. For instance, the water tank was usually designed to be vertical and mounted opposite the main lift components. Called the jib and the load, these parts were generally quite heavy in a steam crane. When the vertical boiler was filled with water it could offset the heavy weight of the crane machinery and provide the counterweight required for heavy lifting.

Man with a drill
Man with a drill

Another similarity between many steam cranes was that they were likely to be one of two configurations. The first configuration was a mobile steam crane that moved around on rail tracks, wheels or via some other mobile platform. This design's major benefit was that it could be moved to assist in a particular job or transferred from place to place. Another typical configuration for a steam crane was for it to be fixed in one location, which may have allowed for more consistent performance and more power.

Whatever the configuration, a steam crane was usually made and installed to perform specific tasks related to heavy lifting. Often used as lifts for goods during the shipping process, many of these cranes were installed at docks to facilitate the loading and unloading of goods from incoming or outgoing ships. One type of crane, a locomotive yard crane, would have been tied to a dock railway system and responsible for unloading ships at various points along the dock.

One reason for the similarities among many steam cranes was that only a few major manufacturers created and sold steam cranes for commercial and industrial use. Many steam cranes that were once important parts of the mercantile industry in the United Kingdom have been preserved by various historical societies. Of the steam cranes preserved, one popular and common version was the fairbairn steam crane produced by William Fairbairn and Sons between 1816 and 1864.

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