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A brief history of the invention of rope

PortandTerminal.com, May 14, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Everyone knows what rope is. Rope is a length of fibers, twisted and braided around each other, that creates a thicker strand which is capable of pulling, tying and connecting. Humans have been making and using rope for a very long time – much longer than we thought it turns out.

A rope is made of three components: Strands, Yarns and Fibers. Drawing of a piece of rope.
A rope is made of three components: Strands, Yarns and Fibers


The earliest “ropes” in prehistoric times were naturally occurring lengths of plant fibers such as vines.

Later, as we learned more about the usefulness of rope, we made our first attempts at twisting and braiding these strands together to make our ropes stronger. In doing so we formed the first proper rope in the modern sense of the word.

How we make and use ropes today though has remained virtually unchanged except for the materials and technology that we use.

Maritime Industry

Recreation of an ancient Egyptian reed sailing vessel
Recreation of an ancient Egyptian reed sailing vessel PHOTO: DW

It is impossible to imagine ships existing without the invention of rope. They simply couldn’t in any meaningful sort of way.

The first proper boats or rafts were made from bundles of logs or rafts of reed bundles tied together using a primitive rope made from hemp or leather pieces. Binding the bundles together would have required huge lengths of primitive rope.

The need for large quantities of rope in shipping grew exponentially over time.

In the golden days of sail in the 19th century, a fully rigged ship could have as many as 25 sails and used literally miles and miles of rope.

HMS Victory. Tourists. Pier.
The HMS Victory is the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission. Ordered in 1758, laid down in 1759 and launched in 1765. She is best known for her role as Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

When the British battleship HMS Victory was launched in 1765 it was estimated that she used 31 miles of rope for her rigging. Granted, she was one of the largest ships in her day, but even common merchant sailing vessels in the age of sail each used many miles of rope as well.

It was everywhere, used for everything. Rope controlled the ship, holding together and operating the complex system of sails which were the ship’s engine.

 Mike Crowe, Fisherman’s Voice – ‘Tons of Rope” (April 2010)

The Encyclopaedia of useful Arts (1866) lists the length and weight of rope needed for a 1st Rate ship of War: Total weight of rope = 78.5 tons (71 000 kilograms).  Total length of rope = 43 miles (69 kilometres)

The common, square-rigged ship was by far the greatest consumer of rope in its day.

The complete gang of standing and running rigging alone for one 400-ton brig launched at Portland, Maine, in 1865 was 3.8 miles long. By 1850 the 1,000-ton ship was common and one launched in 1862 had a gang of standing rigging alone that was over 2 miles long, with sizes ranging up to 9-1/2 inches and over a ton of “smaller stuff,” which was various smaller lines. 

Today, modern shipping still uses an unimaginable amount of rope and, unfortunately, lose tons every year as well in the form of lines, rigging and nets. This lost rope, netting and so on becomes what is called “Ghost Gear” and is a plague to marine life in the world’s oceans.

A tangle of maritime rope washed up on a beach
Lost rope, fishing lines and other types of “ghost gear” is a plague that endangers marine wildlife globally.

As our vessels have grown in size, so have our ropes. The lines on today’s major cargo vessels are enormous and often require several crew members simply to manipulate and move them.

The global synthetic rope market accounted for $1.3 billion in 2017 and is anticipated to reach $2.2 billion by 2025. Of course, not all rope is used in shipping but much of it is so you get the point – rope is still widely used as an essential tool in the maritime world.

Crew on a cargo ship dragging long yellow rope.

Early beginnings

Ancient axe
Even the most primitive of stone tools attached to a stick would require some kind of cordage to keep it secure.

John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York believes that cordage, or primitive rope, was probably in use as far back as half-a-million years ago. Extremely old stone tools appear to have been made to fit handles. Glue didn’t exist back then so it is likely that some primitive form of cordage was being used to secure the tools to their handles.

Fragment of Neanderthal cord believed to be between 41,000 to 52,000 years old
Fragment of Neanderthal cord believed to be between 41,000 to 52,000 years old

In April 2020 archaeologists announced that they had discovered concrete evidence that Neanderthals manufactured and used rope between 41,000 to 52,000 years ago. It was a stunning discovery.

The evidence wasn’t much to look at, just a thin three-ply cord fragment, approximately one-quarter of an inch long, found stuck to a stone tool. But it was enough to prove that Neanderthals weren’t quite as dumb as we once believed. They knew how to make rope.

Previously, the oldest known fragment of cord dated back to around 19,000 years ago from a site in Israel. Scientists had also found impressions left in clay by something that looked like woven fibers from 27,000 years ago.

But what were primitive people using rope for?

In prehistoric times, rope was used for hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting and climbing as it is to this day.

No tools though were used to manufacture primitive rope – the plant fibres were twisted by hand. But by any definition, it was rope that they were laboriously making inch by inch.

Ancient civilization and rope

PHOTO: The 3,245-year-old rope that sealed King Tut's tomb
PHOTO: The 3,245-year-old rope that sealed King Tut’s tomb

Egyptian rope dates back to 4,000 to 3,500 BC and was generally made of water reed fibres (papyrus) or sometimes leather.

From securing ships to tying cattle to a post, building shelters, rope and string was a multipurpose commodity in ancient Egypt. Rope was also instrumental in helping the Egyptians to construct their colossal pyramids that still stand today.

Rope was so important in ancient Egypt that there are depictions of it being manufactured in at least 9 different tombs on and on one loose block in the Cairo Museum.

ancient hieroglyph from Egypt shows the process of making rope.
PHOTO: This ancient hieroglyph from Egypt shows the process of making rope. Compare that to the image below where that process is shown still in use in 1916.
Making rope in the traditional method in Egypt
PHOTO: Making rope in the traditional method in Egypt (1916)

Rope making tools and technique

Modern replica of an Egyptian rope spinner. Reproduced in 2014 by Ahmad Awad. PHOTO: B. Nutz, Institute for Archaeologies, University of Innsbruck

The ancient Egyptians were probably the first civilization to develop special tools to make rope.

Virtually all examples of rope from ancient Egypt were made employing one basic technique which involved twisting and counter twisting fibres. In the first step, yarns or cords were created from individual bundles of fibres, each yarn being twisted it the same direction. The yarns are then twisted around each other in the reverse direction. The laying of the yarns’ fibres upon each other in the opposite creates a tension that keeps them together in the final rope shape.

The actual twisting of the yarns together would be done on a handheld spindle. The device shown in the photo above is a reproduction of an ancient Egyptian rope-making tool and would have been used similar to a ratchet. One end of the strand to be twisted is threaded through the hole in the blade and fastened. The blade is rotated around the handle and the fibers are twisted firmly. The tools helped but it was still tedious work.

Front of the sarcophagus of Titus Flavius Trophimas with scenes of craftsmen at work, a shoemaker and a rope-maker, found in Ostia, National Museum of Rome
Front of the sarcophagus of Titus Flavius Trophimas (died 81 AD) with scenes of craftsmen at work, a shoemaker (L) and a rope-maker (R), found in Ostia, National Museum of Rome

Rope was no less important in ancient Rome. So much so that Titus, one of its emperors has a rope maker depicted on his sarcophagus. To put that homage to rope into a modern context, it would be like a leader today having a picture of an iPhone factory worker assembling a smartphone engraved onto his tombstone.

Stone carving depicting the arrival of a merchant ship at Rome's ancient port of Ostia
Stone carving depicting the arrival of a merchant ship at Rome’s ancient port of Ostia. Note the impressive amount of rope shown in the carving.

The Ropewalk

Public demonstration of historical ropemaking technique
PHOTO: Recreation of a medieval rope walk

Beginning in the Middle Ages, Europeans started making rope using an innovation called the “ropewalk” and what a breakthrough it was. So much so that ropewalks were still in use right up until the 20th century.

Ancient rope walk. Note the two men on the end at left turning the crank
Ancient rope walk. Note the two men on the end at left turning the crank that would twist the strands of fibre.

A ropewalk is a long straight narrow lane, or a covered pathway, where long strands of material are laid before being twisted into rope. 

They have two main advantages over making rope by hand.

The first is that they mechanized the difficult work of twisting strands of plant fibers into greater thicknesses. What had once been done manually could now be accomplished by turning a crank. This made it easier to produce the growing quantities of rope that were in demand.

International trade by sailing vessels had skyrocketed in late medieval Europe and in parallel, so did the demand for more rope. Ropewalks solved the problem of increasing production of rope to meet the demand.

A piece of preserved rope found on board the 16th century carrack Mary Rose
A piece of preserved rope found on board the 16th century carrack Mary Rose that would have been made using a ropewalk

The second advantage of ropewalks is that they allowed thicker and longer lengths of rope to be manufactured. As the size of merchant and naval ships increased through the centuries, the need for longer, stronger ropes increased along with them.

The innovation of tarring ropes increased their longevity

The problem of length

With a ropewalk, the twisting of the yarns and strands had to be done in a straight line. So if larger ropes were required, one needed to increase the size of the ropewalk correspondingly – the length of the rope was set by the length of the workshop.

So as the ships grew size so did the size of the ropewalks. One ropewalk factory in Australia at the end of the 19th century was 2,500 feet long – almost half of a mile.

La Corderie Royale" in Rochefort, France ropewalk aerial view. River.
La Corderie Royale” in Rochefort, France

The largest rope walk still standing dates from 1666 and was in operation until 1867: “La Corderie Royale” in Rochefort, France. With an internal length of 1,230 feet, it was the longest brick building of the 17th century (aerial view of it above) and could produce ropes with a length of up to 807 feet. 

Belfast Ropeworks, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1949, showing detail of a rope-walk gives an idea of the incredible length of the ropemaking workshops from an interior perspective

With the advances of the industrial age, by 1850 rope factories were powered by steam. As more expensive machinery gave an advantage to the factories that possessed it, smaller rope makers fell by the wayside and the industry gradually became dominated by large, highly mechanised spinning mills.

“View of the Ropewalk, at the Charlestown Navy Yard” from Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, c. 1852. [Courtesy Boston Public Library]
“View of the Ropewalk, at the Charlestown Navy Yard” from Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, c. 1852. [Courtesy Boston Public Library]

Watch Making Rope – Medieval to Edwardian Technology

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