A brief history of chain | Leaf Chain Hub

A brief history of chain

History of chain timeline

Who invented industrial chain? Was it Hans Renold, André Galle, Leonardo da Vinci or perhaps even Imhotep? We look back over the key innovations that laid the foundations for today’s lifting and transmission chain.

Chain has been around for thousands of years. The earliest signs of its likely use date back to Ancient Egypt (sometime between 3150-332 BC) for moving water in bucket elevator systems. Such systems were also used during the Han Dynasty in China (202 BC-220 AD) to move water around rice terraces. Early Chinese illustrations show a technique similar to modern drop forged chain conveyors, where attachments effectively pull the water along a channel.

Towards the end of the second century BC, Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium also documented the use of chain in a repeating crossbow, where two flat-linked chains connected to a windlass wound back and forth automatically firing arrows until empty. Later, there are references to forged or round link chain on Roman and Viking ships.

A first glimpse of leaf chain?

The earliest sign of something akin to today’s leaf chain comes from Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who sketched what appears to be steel chain consisting of plates and pins. He also sketched a tooth wheel driving a conveyor belt. Does this mean da Vinci invented industrial chain as we know it? Maybe not. Like many of his designs, it is unclear whether they made it from paper to real life.

Crediting a single inventor of modern industrial chain is also impossible due to the nature of scientific discovery in the past. In today’s highly connected world where we can access almost any information at the click of a button, it seems strange to think of inventors making similar advances and discoveries completely independent of each other. But historians have noted many instances of this occurring and there may be even more given how difficult and costly it was to register a patent before the mid-19th century.

The trouble with patents

Even after the 1852 Patent Law Amendment Act established the modern day Patent Office, it was not until the Patents Act of 1902 that the registration process involved investigating the originality of an invention. So it is probable that a number of people introduced early versions of industrial chain but we don’t know about them since their innovations weren’t patented.

The first chain patent we know of was acquired for anchor chain by English blacksmith Phillip White in 1643 and it is likely this type of chain that found its way into non-maritime applications in England. The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1771 shows this type of chain on a quadruple pump mill for raising water and by 1791 there are references to chain-driven woodwork machinery and pumps at Portsmouth Dockyard. The mechanisation of this site is considered key to the Industrial Revolution, a process which took place in the UK roughly between 1760-1840.

Chain during the Industrial Revolution

While many machines worked on belts and gears, there is no doubt that several types of chains were used in industry and machine manufacturing throughout the Industrial Revolution. The Manchester Central Library, for example, holds a document titled ‘Historical Development of Chain Types 1835-1880’.

The first patent for chain we would recognise today as modern leaf or tooth chain was awarded to French engraver André Galle in 1829. After the death of his daughter, his manufacturing company closed and his patents were sold but Galle chain is still widely used for low-speed heavy-duty back-and-forth applications, such as sluice gates and steel furnace doors.

Game-changing design additions

In 1864 British millwright James Slater from Bolton registered a patent for ‘improvements in toothed chains for working toothed or chain wheels’. Slater’s innovation was to add rollers to transmission chain, which previously consisted of plates and pins only. The addition of rollers overcame issues at the point of engagement with sprockets but not the problem with rapid wear.

This problem was solved by Swiss-born industrialist Hans Renold, who moved to Manchester in 1873 and purchased a small textile chain making business from James Slater a few years later. In 1880 Renold built on Slater’s invention by adding a bush to the inner links. This meant that the pin now pivoted on the bush and the roller rotated on the bush, increasing strength and wear resistance. Besides advances in metallurgy and manufacturing, we would recognise this chain today as modern roller chain.

A new industry

 The growth of the industrial chain industry at this time was closely linked to the invention of the safety bicycle as an alternative to the penny-farthing or ordinary. By using the pedals to power the rear wheel instead of the front, the safety bicycle reduced the risk of falling over the handlebars headfirst. The first cycle of this type to use a chain drive was the Coventry Rotary tricycle, developed by James Starley in 1877. By 1885 the ‘Indispensable Handbook to the Safety Bicycle’ listed nine chain-driven bicycles. When Hans Renold bushed roller chain, it propelled both the industrial and bicycle chain industries. Many European and Asian chain manufacturers started making bicycle chain, although today it is largely made by specialist companies.

British dominance

Bans on exports of knowledge and machinery during the 1800s led to the UK’s leading position in many industries, including industrial chain. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, British companies, such as Anchor Chain Co., Coventry Chain Co., Brampton Brothers, Ewart Chainbelt Co. and Renold Chain, dominated the chain industry. It was not until the second decade of the 20th century that challengers from elsewhere in Europe started to appear. These included Regina from Italy, Sedis from France and Iwis from Germany.

Our Swedish sister company FB Kjedor started manufacturing chain in 1913. 72-years later, FB Chain opened in Letchworth Garden City in the UK to support the heyday of British forklift truck manufacturing during the 1980s. We began supplying 50% of Lansing Bagnall’s leaf chain requirements, as well as to Coventry Climax, Hamech and Lancer Boss. In time, these brands were taken under foreign ownership and their manufacturing relocated outside of the UK but our focus on innovation and technical expertise has kept us thriving.

Continuing innovation

In 1992 we introduced the world’s first corrosion protection leaf chain for forklifts and other handling equipment operating in damp, humid and salty environments – and in 1995 we patented the first ever ‘how much worn’ leaf and roller chain gauge. The FB Professional Chain Wear Gauge is now used by operators, service technicians and safety inspectors all over the world and considered the gold standard tool for the thorough examination and inspection of industrial truck leaf chain.

We may never know the true inventor of industrial chain – if there was indeed a single person responsible. To us, the history of industrial chain is a story of international collaboration and continuous improvement, and we must continue to innovate as an industry, raising standards in quality, safety and reliability for the benefit of all.

For advice on any leaf chain requirements, feel free to get in touch with one of our experts.

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