Hydraulic Crane

The power of water can be harnessed to do all sorts of things. Waterwheels were invented thousands of years ago to turn mill wheels to grind wheat into flour and to power pumps to raise water for crop irrigation and to supply cities with fresh water.

When water is contained within a pipe we can use it to create motion in a straight line by using a cylinder and piston. The piston is a tight sliding fit in the cylinder and when the water enters the cylinder it pushes the piston along.

This method of applying a FORCE and causing motion is called Hydraulics.

Here is a video showing how water in syringes connected by tubes can be made to move a crane. The syringes are the cylinders and pistons.

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click for video clip

The hydraulic crane was invented in Newcastle by William Armstrong in about 1845 to help load coal into barges at the Quayside. It was a great success and the cranes were sold all over the world. The hydraulic crane helped the North East of England to grow and prosper, and Newcastle became one of the most important cities in the world as a result.

The cranes on the quayside were water powered. Using water in cylinders to create a force to move things is called ‘hydraulics’ and today a special oil called ‘hydraulic fluid’ is used instead of water.

All sorts of machines use hydraulics: car brakes; aeroplane wing and tail actuators; JCB diggers etc.


This is an old drawing of one of the quayside hydraulic cranes. The cylinders are hidden away under the deck of the crane. The ends of the pistons are attached to steel cables and pulleys so that they can cause the main cable to wind up and the main tower to rotate.


This is William Armstrong as a young man in his early twenties, the age at which he invented the hydraulic crane.

There is an amazing model of the hydraulic crane in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne.

One of Armstrong’s biggest hydraulic cranes is being restored and an attempt may be made to bring it back to Tyneside from its current home in Venice. The crane was built in 1885 and continued in use until 1950 after having been damaged by bombing in the second world war.

see the following web page for more information...



Here are some details of a simpler wooden hydraulic crane model which you can build and can be found on the

‘boxed kits for sale’


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The pushing force to make the crane jib rise and fall is produced using water in two syringes connected by a tube. One syringe is full and the other is empty. Could air be used instead of water?

This picture shows the wooden crane which is really a horizontal lever (jib) joined to a vertical support or tower. The syringe at the base is operated by hand and this causes the syringe which links the tower to the jib to  push and cause the jib to rise. A wooden dowel in the top of the tower acts as a pivot. The string is held on by an elastic band on the end of the jib and on the end it has a paper clip hook

A more advanced crane has a winding mechanism to raise and lower the winding cable (string in this case). Here are some additional parts which could be used to make a winding mechanism. There is also a magnet as in a scrapyard crane.

First you will need to make the ‘winding crank’. Shaving a tiny bit from the ends of the wooden dowels and sandpapering helps things fit together more easily - a strong push fit is needed. Grey plastic has been used as the crank arm in this picture but any colour is suitable.

The long axle of the winder passes through the hole near the bottom of the vertical tower. Check that it fits into the hole with ease and use sandpaper if necessary so that it can rotate freely when turned.

Use tape, a very small rubber band or ‘o’ ring made from black rubber to hold the end of the string onto the winding axle.

Two eye-hooks which screw into the jib near both ends can then be used to lead the string from the crank to the end of the jib. There are already two tiny start holes in the underside of the jib arm ready to accept the screw eyes.

The very end of the string can have a variety of different attachments eg. a paper clip hook, magnet or a more solidly constructed hook and weight made from a wooden block with hole in it for the string to tie and a screw hook fitted below it.

This picture shows the winding handle in place as well as the screw eyes to lead the string to the end of the jib. On the very end is the block with screw hook ready to pick up the ‘load’ which is made from a larger wooden block fitted with a screw eye.

The paper clip hook and magnet are shown separately.

A further challenge might be to make a rotating base for the crane so that it can swing around left or right when moving a load.

Here a large piece of mdf has been used as the base. A central hole has been drilled and a wooden dowel ‘pivot’ or axle has been pushed in.

The base of the crane has a similar hole drilled and can be fitted onto the dowel pivot.

The last remaining challenge is to create a scene using simple card and stationery materials and equipment which shows the crane loading a ship with coal at Newcastle quayside. Why not send in a picture of your finished model. Any pictures shown will win a prize which will be one of my other ‘packet-model kits’.

Look out for your crane scene picture on this page!

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