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Port crane from 14th century still survives in Gdansk, Poland

PortandTerminal.com, August 29, 2019

GDANSK, POLAND – The earliest mentions of the Port of Gdansk date to over to the 10th century, over 1,500 years ago. The first mention of its iconic Zuraw Crane dates to 1367 as we’ll come to later in this article.

Chronicles of the early 13th century give more details about Gdansk’s overseas trade at that time. Due to its location at the estuary of a large river, Gdansk swiftly developed into a major trade hub. A vital naval city for Polish grain trade, it attracted people from all over the European continent. 

By the second half of the 14th-century merchant vessels from Gdansk and were trading with overseas countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Flanders, England, France, Spain and Portugal.

By 1687, Gdansk was a thriving commercial center thanks in large part to its port

The Zuraw Crane in Gdansk

The oldest documented mention of the Gdansk’s Zuraw as a wooden port crane was in 1367. What you see today, however, was rebuilt in the middle of the 15th century after a devastating fire destroyed the original structure. The large Zuraw crane was used to place masts on ships (see image above) and to load cargo.

The Zuraw is one of the defining symbols of Gdańsk and represents what little is left of the city’s great trading age. At one time it was the largest working crane in the world and also served both a defence function and as one of the gates to the city.

17th-century painting of Gdansk where the Zuraw crane is visible in the background

Treadwheel crane technology

Reconstruction of ancient Roman treadwheel crane from 1st century AD.

The Zuraw crane in Gdansk is an example of a treadwheel crane. Treadwheel cranes were wooden, human-powered lifting devices. primarily used during the Roman period and the Middle Ages in the building of castles and cathedrals.

A 13th-century drawing of a treadwheel crane

During the Middle Ages, the treadwheel crane was reintroduced on a large scale after the technology had fallen into disuse in western Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Zuraw Crane in Gdansk was powered by people walking within its two huge wooden wheels at its heart, each with a diameter of 20 feet (6 metres). It had a lifting capacity of 4 tonnes to a height of 36 feet (11 metres).

The Zuraw Crane was powered by people walking within its two huge wooden wheels at its heart, each with a diameter of 20 feet (6 metres)

Dockside treadwheel cranes were frequently capped by a wooden roof to protect the mechanics and the workers from the rain. These permanent structures had much in common with windmills, and they were most probably built by the same craftsmen.

The most powerful treadwheel harbour cranes were built in the London docklands in the 1850s, having two treadwheels of up to 3 metres wide, each walked by 3 to 4 men.

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