The History of Man’s Use of Scaffolding

mtecadmin | March 10, 2020

In our second blog post we look back at the history of man’s use of scaffolding and temporary structures to access the unreachable.

Eighteen Thousand Years of Scaffolding Evolution

Palaeolithic Art

We’ll start our look at the history of man’s use of scaffolding and temporary structures 18, 000 years ago in South West France. Even before we were building above ground level, we needed scaffolding. In 1940 in Lascaux, a man and his dog discovered a network of Palaeolithic caves. Paintings daub the walls depicting stone age scenes and the hunting of animals. The murals are high above the ground. It’s thought that the artists built a cantilevered scaffold – that is, a beam supported from only one end – by making sockets holes in the cave walls.
Evidence of man's earliest use of scaffolding

Evidence of man’s earliest use of scaffolding. Note the socket like holes in the base of the wall, and how high the paintings are up the wall.

The Building of the Pyramids

The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids with scaffolds and ramps over 4, 500 years ago. In the 5th Century BC, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the use of scaffold steps to lever huge stone blocks up the pyramid.  
Herodotus writes that construction of the pyramids was upside down. Workers moved the stones to the top of the structure by supporting them on tiers: ‘the upper part of the pyramid was finished off first, then the next below it, and last of all the base and the lowest part.’
“The Histories” – The Great Pyramid. Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920
Scaffolding the Pyramids

The Egyptians used scaffolding to move the stones to the top of the structure. Pic Credit Structure Magazine


What Have the Romans Ever Done for us…

The Romans were, of course, great builders. A noteworthy drawing from the tomb of Trebius Justus, a Roman official, shows workers using ladders and scaffolds from around 300AD. Look at the Colosseum, the Pont du Gard bridge, the aqueducts – all built with scaffolding.
A Roman image of scaffolding in use

A Roman image of scaffolding in use

There’s no evidence there was scaffolding used in the building of Stonehenge but by the medieval age gangs of monks were using it to build churches.  Early 20th Century photographs of the building of Buckfast Abbey show this.

Building medieval churches

Further East, erection of The Great Wall of China probably began as fortified rammed earth walls. The more permanent stone and brick construction started during the Ming dynasty in the  14th Century. It would have utilised temporary structures resembling scaffolding.

Using temporary structures to create something very permanent.


The Advent of Modern Day Scaffolding

The Invention of the Universal Coupler

It’s amazing to think that scaffolding was a simple wood and rope, or bamboo and rope, structure until the early 1900’s. It was then that the Grandfather of scaffolding, Daniel, and his brother David, Palmer-Jones transformed scaffolding with the invention of the scaffixer. 
Advances in metallurgy made metal poles available. The brothers soon realised that a standardised set of fixings would stop the poles slipping. So they came up with the patented Rapid Scaffixer. It was so successful they won the contract to provide the scaffolding for the remodelling of Buckingham Palace in 1913.
Palmer-Jones soon improved on the scaffixer with the Universal Coupler, still in use today. By the 1920’s two-inch water pipes were being used as the poles. Their standardised sizing led to all the fittings being standard and safety and stability was much improved.
Universal coupler full plan for patent

The game-changing patent for the universal coupler, still in use today on tube and fitting scaffolding.


The post-WW2 Building Boom and the Invention of System Scaffold

Following the extensive urban bombings in WW2, a massive rebuilding program began in the UK. Lyndon SGB developed the Frame, or CupLok, scaffold, in addition to their version of the Universal Coupler, the band and plate system.
System scaffolding consists of pre-engineered horizontal and vertical components that combine in a systematic manner. CupLok components are 3.2 mm high-grade steel. As a result, they are 20% lighter than regular scaffolding tubes which are made of 4 mm steel. Faster to erect than tube and fitting, System scaffolding propelled SGB to become one of the largest firms in the UK and the world.
Haki is a Swedish system scaffold, first developed by brothers Olle and Agne Ollson in 1969. 
A similar system scaffold is the German-made Layher, developed in 1948 by a timber merchant. By 1965 the SpeedyScaf and in 1974, the Allround Scaffolding systems led to Layher being the largest global manufacturer of system scaffolds. They are a family run business to this day and the use of Layher extends beyond the building site. 

The Present Day

Scaffolding is always evolving as modern materials and systems make it safer to use and erect. For example, aluminium Layher Beams are stronger and lighter than steel ones. The reduced weight and increased strength of this material allows for larger spans.
Netting and monarflex, introduced in the 1960’s, allowed for more convenient winter working and made sites safer for passers-by. Yet some elements remain as they were when the Egyptians built the pyramids. For example, block and tackle systems to lift materials have not changed since and throughout most of Asia, man is still using temporary structures made of bamboo.
As its stability and safety have increased scaffolding is starting to appear everywhere. Ski jumps, stadium seating, furniture, shop fittings… the list goes on!
1961 Wembley Ski Jump

1961 Wembley ski jump

London 2012 Temporary Stadium Seating in Greenwich for Equestrian events

London 2012 Temporary Stadium Seating in Greenwich for Equestrian events pic credit Sally Wakelin


Scaffold Desk

Scaffold desk by Wings Furniture


In our next blog we will look at the evolution of health and safety.