Home Architecture

A Quick History of Hydraulic Power in the Construction Industry

The construction industry has seen many positive changes over the years thanks to new technology. With each major change, equipment becomes more efficient, worker safety increases, and projects get done faster.

Our contemporary world wouldn’t exist without the vast accumulation of advancements in construction equipment and techniques. We’ve come a long way since the first buildings were crafted centuries ago, and much of Europe’s architecture is a testament to the creativity and care people had even back in the 1500s. 

While many advancements have made brilliant contributions to the construction industry, nothing has made it more efficient than hydraulic power.

What is hydraulic power? Why does it matter?

Hydraulic systems are central to construction equipment and workers wouldn’t be able to complete projects as quickly without this technology. While some people complain about a new home taking a year-and-a-half to complete, that’s only because of permit requirements and other legal hoops. The actual construction doesn’t take as long as it did even just thirty years ago.

Hydraulic power relies on pressurized fluid, which provides a significant amount of power to drive the pistons and can also make tools and equipment lighter. The downside is that hydraulic fluid can be dangerous to the environment and human beings. For instance, fluid injection injuries are common, and they can be deadly.

One of the best, yet simplest advancements as far as safety goes, is the invention of leak-free quick connect couplings. Over the years, equipment operators have dealt with leaking couplers by trying to rebuild them, but replacing them with leak-free couplers is the better option.

In addition to parts becoming safer, hydraulic power has become a staple in large construction machinery.

Here is a brief history of hydraulic power in construction

The first hydraulic machinery was used in the 1800s


The first known use of hydraulic construction equipment dates back to 1882 with a hybrid excavator in England. This excavator combined water pressure with traditional cables and winches. 


The first completely hydraulic excavator was built by the Kilgore Machine Company and was highly effective.


Not much changed in this time period, but when the 1960 rolled around, hydraulics got off to a great start. 

The 1960s 

Construction equipment in the 1960s was mostly powered by winches and cables. It took immense effort to move dozer blades, cranes, excavators, and backhoes. Because of this, machines were simple and repairs were easy. Although today’s hydraulic machinery is more complex, it’s an acceptable trade-off for higher efficiency.

By the end of the decade, with a few exceptions, nearly all construction equipment was powered by hydraulics. Although, the pressure was limited to around 2,500 psi, compared to today’s pressure that operates between 5,000 and 6,000 psi. This is what makes it possible for a skid steer to glide around quickly while carrying a heavy load.

The downside to early hydraulics is that the equipment leaked a lot and the machinery was considered dirty. For this reason, not all contractors embraced hydraulics right away.


During the 1970s, engineers improved control and productivity. For example, they figured out how to transition quickly from forward motion to moving in reverse. Torque limiting was created to control flow inversely proportional to pressure. This made it possible to control the horsepower. It was also around this time that Caterpillar patented their axial piston pump.

The 1970s-today

It’s not really clear when smaller aspects of hydraulic advancements were implemented in construction equipment, but there have been minor improvements since the 1960s. For example, at some point, multiple actuators were added to machinery to make complex and precise motions possible. 

For example, contemporary excavators can dig deep, scoop, lift, and deposit heavy loads, whether it’s soil or rock. They can also do things like stack beer bottles and golf balls, as well as open a cooler, take out a beer, and remove the cap.

Although these aren’t exactly practical examples of how an excavator can be used in construction, they’re impressive because they demonstrate the precision these machines are capable of achieving thanks to hydraulics.

The biggest advancements in hydraulic equipment has been the ability to increase the pressure while maintaining operator safety and decreasing leaks.

The future of hydraulics

As hydraulics improved over time, machines became less leaky, more fuel efficient, and more controllable. Advancements in the future are likely to make operations even safer and more efficient, although most of the hard work has already been done by the early pioneers.