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When Were Ladders Invented? History of the Ladder

man carrying a ladder

Ladders have become a crucial part of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, their ease of use, accessibility, and intelligent design are taken for granted in the modern world.

Have you ever wondered where and when this genius invention is rooted? While an Ohio carpenter named John H. Balsley is famously credited for the invention of the ladder, there’s more to this equipment’s history that you may know of.

The ladders existence may even date back to the 25th century BC when the pyramids were built. So, if you are interested in learning about the rich and long history of ladders, you’re at the right place.

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When Were Ladders Invented?

John H. Balsley, a master carpenter and worker, invented the modern-day step ladder in 1862. He was born and raised in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, on May 29, 1823, with his father teaching him carpentry in his early years.

Balsley moved to Dayton, Ohio, in the 1850s, where he invented the first folding step ladder. With the addition of hinges, he was able to fold, carry, and store the ladder conveniently. He was also the first to replace rounded rungs with flat steps, making it easier to climb the ladder.

The same year, he received the first US patent issued for safety stepladders. Although Balsley is falsely credited for inventing all ladders, he only created the modern step ladder. Before that, ladders had been around for many centuries.

wooden ladder in the field
Image Credit: Piqsels

History of the Ladder

Ladders are much older than you may think, as they may have originated over 4,500 years ago. Here’s a complete breakdown of the ladder’s history and the word’s origin:

Origin of the Word

The word “ladder” is believed to have traces of various linguistic origins. For example, the old Gothic word “hleithra” could be the origin of the modern English word ladder, as it means “something that slopes.”

However, the middle English word “laedra” has more sonic similarity to the modern world. Other than that, Frisian speakers have also used the German word “heldere” to refer to ladders. In old high German, this variates to “leitara” and “ledere” or “leer” in middle Dutch.

Overall, the word has West Germanic origins in the old English, Dutch, and German languages. The modern term evolved from these terms to be easier to pronounce in daily conversation.

25th Century BC

Ladders are famously linked to Egyptian and Greek cultures. Although the building of the pyramids remains mysterious, it’s believed that enslaved Egyptians may have used a ladder variation to make the construction simpler.

This dates back to the 25th century BC, which is when the legendary pyramids are assumed to be built. Experts have guessed that enslaved Egyptians may have used rope and wood to create a ladder with a design similar to the one we use today.

Surprisingly, ladders had a purpose outside of construction benefits in Ancient Egypt. Since Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife, they believed that a person might ascend to heaven after death.

As a result, they kept ladders inside or near tombs to help the deceased’s soul ascend to the gods. Unfortunately, this belief also perpetuates the notion that standing under a ladder can curse your soul.

pyramid in egypt
Image Credit: Squirrel_photos, Pixabay

8th Century BC

It is the 8th century BC that is most famously considered the origin of ladders. However, scientists deemed this the official origin of the equipment after finding a painting in Bicorp, Valencia, eastern Spain. Their research found that this painting is nearly 10,000 years old.

The painting features a man holding a pot while climbing a ladder, presumably reaching a beehive to harvest honey. Bees and other details surround the man and the ladder. So, it’s clear that ladders helped people acquire food in the 8th Century BC Spain.

This Mesolithic rock painting was found in Valencia’s Spider Caves, detailing that the ladder is flexible and possibly made out of types of grass.

5th Century

Ladders were primarily used for construction and wall art during the medieval period, but they also had other purposes. For example, artists relied on this piece of equipment to decorate cities like Rome with iconic and historical murals.

In contrast, ladders were also used as war instruments, helping seize castles and fortresses. They were also able to assist in destroying whole towns and villages during times of war.

Ladders were mainly built from grass and other flexible materials during this time, while wooden options were only used for war. A famous painting from the medieval era depicts a man being hung on a ladder and publicly executed for piracy.

wooden ladder
Image Credit: Piqsels

15th Century

After the end of the medieval period in the 15th Century, ladders were also mentioned in the Bible. For example, in the original Luther Bible of 1534 and 1545, the ladder is mentioned in relation to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob.

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob has a vision of a ladder leading up to heaven as angels ascend and descend the rungs to carry out God’s work. While the significance of this vision is still up for debate, it details the everyday use of ladders during the 15th Century.

Other than that, ladders were also mentioned in the Bible in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

19th Century

In the 19th Century, fire insurance brigades only utilized ladders available on the scene instead of bringing their own. As a result, the Society for Protection of Life from Fire (SPLF) was established in 1836, aiding rescues who carried their own fleet of ladders.

The same year, the society invented the first wheeled escape, consisting of a ladder featuring a chute to help people descend faster. These ladders also featured hinged extensions for additional height.

The 1800s held the invention of the modern-day ladder or at least a variation of it. John H. Balsley from Connellsville, Pennsylvania, invented the first folding step ladder in 1862, which is why he’s most famously credited for the overall invention of this equipment.

folding ladder
Image Credit: Piqsels

Additionally, Henry Marcus Quackenbush invented the first extension ladder in 1867. Born in New York in 1847, he was a known genius who began his apprenticeship at only 14. Then, at only 16, he created the extension ladder.

Moreover, the first wagon-mounted ladder was invented by Joseph Richard Winters in 1878. This ladder mostly purposed fire escapes, and the inventor upgraded it to an affixed ladder in 1882, allowing it to mount on buildings.

20th Century

In 1906, the Germans invented the first horse-drawn turntable ladder, which stood 75 feet tall. Metz, Merryweather, and Magirus were a few notable manufacturers of the turntable ladder in the 20th Century.

This ladder could rotate 360 degrees, allowing firefighters to direct a hose from a distance. The Simon Snorkel is the hydraulic platform version of this ladder, often used as a water tower or for rescue purposes.

The French also created the hook ladder in the late 1800s, but it was adopted by the London Fire Brigade in the early 1900s. Firefighters could use this ladder to scale the building’s exterior and reach places other ladders couldn’t reach.

Unfortunately, the use of the hook ladder resulted in several significant injuries during firefighter training, which is why it was taken out of service in the 80s. Similarly, the wheeled escape ladder from the 1800s was discontinued in the 1980s.

ALCOA, an American aluminum company, invented aluminum ladders in 1930 to replace heavy and bulky wooden ladders. The ‘30s also saw technological advancements in equipment, such as the automatic ladder by Melvin Lewis in 1936.

fire truck with turntable ladder
Image Credit: Melanie, Shutterstock

21st Century

In 2010, Jean-Pierre invented the first automatic attic ladders. Additionally, 64-meter aerial ladder platforms were added to LFB fleets in 2021. This ladder rotates 360 degrees and extends in different directions, unlike the turntable ladder.

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While this piece of equipment may seem simple and unassuming, the ladder has a surprisingly distant origin that may even date back to the 25th century BC. Today, this helpful tool is available in various forms, including step ladders, turntable ladders, and more.

Certain modern ladders even use electrical power to lift the user to their destination. The future shows room for technological advancements in this piece of equipment to simplify the jobs of plumbers, electricians, firefighters, and other ladder users.

Featured Image Credit: Zephyr_p, Shutterstock


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