The History of Conveyors

He who doesn’t understand history is doomed to repeat it.

                                                           — Pittacus Lore, I Am Number Four

Not knowing the history of conveyors may not doom your future, but that does not make it any less important to know the past. To help alleviate any ignorance, here is a quick overview of the birth of conveyors and how they developed over the last 200 years.

Wood and Leather

Photo Credit (Wikimedia Commons)

The first conveyor belts were developed in the late 18th century, with most sources pointing at the year 1795 as the first instance of a conveyor. Consisting of leather belts running over wooden beds, they were short and were powered with hand cranks and a series of pullies. Their primary use was to transport farmers goods onto ships at port. Even though over 200 years has passed there are still some connections to the first conveyors today, such as using wood as a surface for modern plastic table top chain to ride on.

Steam Power

The steam engine was invented well before conveyor belts appeared, so it did not take long for the technologies to be joined. The first steam powered conveyor belt was used by the British Navy in 1804 to make biscuits for their sailors. Hopefully they used rigorous sanitary standards to help keep the biscuits safe to eat.

The Industrial Revolution

With the dawn of the 20th century came the industrial revolution as well as many great advancements in conveyor technology. In 1901, the first steel belt was invented in Sweden, which was used to transport bulk materials such as gravel and charcoal. In Ireland the first underground conveyor belt was put in to use in 1905, greatly increasing the efficiency of mining operations. The first patent for roller conveyors was awarded in 1908 allowing for smooth transport of goods by means of internal ball bearings.

Henry Ford

Photo Credit (Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most famous use of conveyors was when Henry Ford, influenced by slaughter houses, created the first assembly lines for his Model T cars in 1913. By moving the car along a conveyor belt, the factory workers were spared the hassle of having to move their tools to each car being assembled. This reduced the time to manufacture an automobile to as little as 93 minutes, or one every 24 seconds, revolutionizing the car industry. Conveyor driven assembly lines became standard in car factories by 1919.

Synthetic Materials

World War Two saw the development of many new synthetic materials due to the restriction of natural materials such as rubber and cotton for the war effort. Urethane and synthetic rubber, along with other technologies such as rolling systems and the V-belt assembly, made conveyors more efficient. In 1957 the B.F. Goodrich Company patented the first turnover conveyor belt, which, by adding a twist in the belt, extended belt life by spreading wear to both sides of the conveyor belt.

The Modern Era

The modern era of conveyors could be said to have started in the 1970s with Intralox filing to patent their first modular plastic belting, or modular belt. Conveyors are now used throughout modern industrial manufacturing, shopping centers, and family homes. Currently, the longest conveyor in existence is in Western Sahara, measuring in at over 60 miles long and used to transport phosphate from a mining operation to the continents coast.

Title Image Photo Credit (Wikimedia)


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