Great Lengths: History of Rope

One can only imagine what inspired prehistoric people to combine vines to form the first rope. Little did they know the myriad ways that simple invention would be adapted over thousands of years.

Employing materials ranging from plants and hair to plastic and steel, rope has formed everything from fishing nets to rigging for ships to vast suspension bridges (not to mention those indispensible straps we use to secure building materials for transportation from the home center).

The first fossil evidence of rope dates back to 17,000 B.C. By about 4,000 B.C. Egyptians had developed methods for making ropes out of animal hides and hair, water reeds, grass and date palm fiber. In addition to fastening items together (bundling reeds to make rafts, harnessing animals to pull plows, etc.), lassoing and netting animals (and spirits) and erecting tents, the Egyptians used ropes to make ladders, lift heavy items and — with thousands of workers pulling — move massive stones to build monuments.

In about 2,800 B.C. the Chinese made rope from hemp, a material that would remain in use for centuries. (In 1586 the 327-ton obelisk on St. Peter’s Square in Rome was erected with the aid of much hemp rope, and during the American Civil War, Thaddeus Lowe, chief aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, spied on Confederate troops’ movements from a hot-air balloon that employed hemp rope.) The craft of rope making spread throughout the world, though much of its history went unrecorded: Medieval rope makers shrouded their methods in secrecy; master craftsmen passed on their knowledge to apprentices and hid innovations from their competitors.

During this time rope was made in long buildings called ropewalks, where strands were stretched out and twisted together. The span of the building determined the maximum length of the rope. When the ropewalk at Chatham Dockyard in Kent, England, was built in 1790, it was the longest brick building in Europe. The 1,135-ft. ropewalk is still in use today; operators ride bicycles to trek from end to end.

Until the early 1800s, ropes were made of natural fibers such as hemp, manila and sisal. But in the 1830s German mining official Wilhelm Albert sought to create a new product that would combine the advantages of hemp ropes and iron chains. In 1834 he made the first wire rope, which was stronger than hemp and took up one-third the drum space that a chain would require. Albert chronicled his production methods in a mining periodical, which made it easy for manufacturers around the world to produce wire ropes.

In 1841 John Roebling, a German engineer who had emigrated to the United States, began producing wire rope in a ropewalk that he built on his farm. He later opened a large factory in Trenton, N.J., and eventually put his products and expertise to use engineering suspension bridges, most notably the Brooklyn Bridge.

During the mid-1800s San Francisco’s use of cable cars made it the world’s largest wire-rope market, spurring competition among rope makers. Other cities began using cable cars in the 1870s and 1880s, increasing the demand and drawing more manufacturers into the business, which resulted in wire-rope innovations that outlasted the cable-car industry.

The creation of nylon, polyester and polypropylene revolutionized 20th-century rope making. Ropes made of synthetic materials tend to be more durable, lightweight and elastic than their natural-fiber counterparts, and modern production methods have allowed for the manufacture of specialized ropes for specific purposes. Our vine-braiding ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of the lengths to which their idea would be developed, and rope has become so entwined with human history that it’s impossible for us to imagine a world without it.