From barrels to concrete mixers: the history of construction



Comprised of one innovation after another, the history of construction is a long and complex one. Brick by brick, humankind has established the most phenomenal structures – whether they be the pyramids of the Ancient Egyptians, or the temples of Ancient Rome, or simply the new apartment building across your street that went up in record time with the use of a few concrete mixers. Although the history of construction is much too expansive to cover in just one blog, check out this brief article on some of the most exciting points of the history of the construction industry.




The beginning


Before launching into the brief history of the topic, the clear meaning of construction must be established. What constitutes as construction throughout the course of history can be quite murky. For example, do we consider grass shelters and pit-houses as construction works, or are these structures overlooked by imposing stone buildings? Many argue that construction is as old as humans themselves – and no building activity, no matter how primitive, can be disregarded.


Most construction during very ancient, primitive times, comprised of stone monoliths – like Stonehenge – and the basic mud hut. Tools utilised in primitive construction typically included bones, axes and copper plates. Fast forward hundreds of years, and these activities began to herald in society as we know it, cities instead of pastoral life.


Over time, humans began to refine their practices and commenced constructing more permanent and sturdy structures. Most historians argue that what we consider to be “traditional construction” only started to take shape in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. These societies marked the beginning of the end of nomadic life, wherein humans began building permanent shelters that lasted a few generations. The pyramids of Ancient Egypt are some examples of the first large-scale and permanent structures as a result of heavy construction.


Pyramids: a history shrouded in mystery


Years ago, a group of researchers discovered a 4,500-year-old ramp system in Egypt that was used to haul stones made of alabaster out of a quarry site. Some historians and scholars alike have argued that this ramp system gives us an idea of how the Egyptians built the gargantuan pyramids without the modern machinery we so rely upon today. However, others believe that connecting the two is a bit of a stretch. The system dates back to the time of Pharaoh Khufu’s reign – who was responsible for building the Great Pyramid of Giza.




The interesting system comprised a central ramp that was flanked by two staircases and a variety of post holes. It has been established that a sled, carrying the stone block, was attached with ropes to the posts and was filled with alabaster blocks and pulled up by a team of ancient Egyptians.


Despite this discovery, the way in which the ancient Egyptians moved and cut stone is still shrouded in mystery. The great pyramids were built with stones such as red granite – and historians to this day have no confirmation of how exactly these strong stones were cut and hauled up the sides of the pyramids during construction. However, the ramp system is a considerable contender.


Construction in Rome


Approximately 2,363 kilometres away in Rome, architects depended largely on the legacy left behind by the Ancient Greek architects who had established prominent architectural orders like the Corinthian. Romans were great innovators when it came to combining new construction materials and techniques with imaginative design in order to create a plethora of completely new architectural structures. Some typical Roman buildings included:


• The amphitheatre
• Basilica
• Triumphal arch
• Aqueduct


Residential housing block


Many of these structures, helped by routine maintenance of course, still remain to this day – which is a truly impressive feat considering how long ago they were built. Their endurance has a lot to do with the fact that Roman construction projects were usually backed by state apparatus which guaranteed permanence. As a result, we are still able to visit these incredible feats of construction today.




Rome’s first all-marble building was the Temple of Jupiter, which was finished in 146 BCE. However, it was not until the Empire had been founded that the use of marble as a basic and widespread building material was normalised. It soon became the choice for most state-funded buildings that needed to look impressive. Other than marble, travertine white limestone, available from quarries near Tivoli, was also favoured due to its ability to handle precise carving and its load-bearing quality. It was often used for steps, paving as well as door and window frames.


Although the Romans were not responsible for inventing lime mortar, they were the first people to understand the full possibilities of the material when they used it to produce concrete. Before, concrete rubble had just been used as a filler material. Then, architects realised that it could support intense weight and therefore a new set of building opportunities opened up. The material that was created through mixing aggregate and lime mortar was donned “opus caementicium”.


Due to its thicker consistency, it was not poured like the concrete of today. By the 1st century BCE, the use of concrete was widespread and evident in foundations, vaults and walls. The material was much cheaper than solid stone, and had the potential of being given a more aesthetic façade using marble veneer or stucco.


Construction in Ancient China


Raised pavilions, walled compounds, wooden columns and panelling, landscaped gardens, and yellow glazed roof tiles. These are some construction features typically found in Ancient China, many of which still occur across East Asia today. Chinese architects were largely influenced by Buddhist ideas of design in their structures, and although few of these buildings remain, there are various texts and depictions in art that paint a picture of what type of construction was going on at the time.




Throughout the history of the country, Chinese architecture remained surprisingly constant. The same materials were put to use for centuries, with wood being the preferred material instead of stone. Roof structures were typically topped with glazed ceramic tiles. Larger structures that were used for the elite, such as temples and towers, were typically built on raised platforms comprising of compacted earth and consequently faced with stone or brick.


Some early examples of these construction types date back to the Shang dynasty ( between 1600 – 1046 BCE). As time went on, it is evident that structures became larger and larger, and had more levels added onto them in order to create elaborate stepped terraces. Chinese buildings were characteristically brightly coloured, with vermillion being used for pillars; yellow for roof tiles and green for decorative elements like brackets under the eaves of roofs. The most frequently noted building type featured equally-spaced timber posts that were strengthened by horizontal cross-beam structures.


The Chinese, with earthquakes in mind, cleverly used very few nails in structures in order to protect buildings. Further, the joins between wooden parts were expertly created to interlock using tenons and mortises which allowed for much better flexibility. The posts usually supported thatch roods in earlier times, then gabled and tiled roofs with gentle, upward-curving corners in later times.


The Industrial Revolution


Fast forward to many years later, the growing world population as well as the process of urbanisation lead to construction becoming a staple part of civilisation. The structures built between the period of 1760 and 1840 (although being a far cry from the type of construction we see in modern society) became the foundations from which contemporary construction was born.


Emboldened by the end of the industrial revolution, America and several other parts of the world, went through an intense period of advancement from around 1870 to the beginning of the first world war. This period became known as the Technological Revolution – or the Second Industrial Revolution. It was during this time that inventors and builders significantly improved manufacturing processes. Steel was beginning to be produced in mass.




The fact that steel was so cheap and readily available meant that construction projects like skyscrapers, large buildings and railroads had become a possibility. The first skyscraper in America was the Home Insurance building, which was built in Chicago in 1885. Comically, it only stood a mere 138 feet, which by today’s standards, would not nearly qualify as skyscraper height. Steel is still widely available at a cheap cost, and is therefore still used in construction projects around the world.


Besides its cheapness and availability, the material is so popular due to its recyclable and non-combustible nature as well as the fact that it is impervious to termites. Bolstered by the advancements in steel technology, and exhausted by mixing concrete in barrels and wheelbarrows by hand, inventors began working to create the first concrete mixers.


All about concrete mixers


In 1900, one of the first largescale concrete mixers was developed in Milwaukee in the United States of America. Concrete mixers functioned, as they do now, by combining aggregates like gravel or sand, cement and water to make concrete. Most mixers utilise a revolving drum to thoroughly mix the components in a speedy fashion, which is why they are so popular in the construction industry. For smaller construction projects, portable concrete mixers are frequently used so that concrete can be mixed at the actual building site.


There are two types of cement mixers; mobile transit concrete mixers and portable drum cement mixers. The former are large truck-mounted mixers that drive to and from construction sites, all the while constantly churning the concrete within in order to prevent it from hardening and setting. Most of these trucks can carry around 20,000 kilograms of pre-mixed concrete. Portable drum cement mixers, such as those provided by us at BS Power, are found on many construction sites. While they are capable of mixing smaller amounts of concrete than the mobile transit mixers, they are still incredibly handy and a constant source of fresh concrete.


The portable drum mixer comprises of the following three components:


1. The drum – rotating barrel that is open on one end that allows aggregate, cement and water to be added.

2. The motor – an electrical motor that rotates the drum at the required speed when activated.

3. The frame – the structure that holds everything together, which usually features wheels for easy movement.




The story so far


The tale of the construction industry details the story of human advancement. Anyone who steps foot in a formidable building can thank their ancestors for the innovation of the past which allows us to create the impressive structures of today. With regular upgrades and up-and-coming ideas, there is no doubt that in 200 years’ time, the world of construction may be unrecognisable to that which we are used to today. Next time you become frustrated with the sounds of construction across your street, think about its importance and role in the development of humankind.