Who invented the world’s first aerial cableway?
The setting is 17th century Poland, on a hill in Biskupia Gorka, or Bishops Mountain, in Danzig (now Gdansk).
Here, in 1644, a revolutionary cable lift system – a continuously circulating ropeway – performed its first rotation, transporting building materials and earthworks from the bottom of the hill to the construction site and bastion above.
This groundbreaking cableway, the first of its kind and the biggest built until the end of the 19th century, was designed and manufactured by Adam Wybe (also spelt Wiebe), a genius Dutch inventor from Harlingen, the Netherlands, who found himself living as a refugee in Poland in 1616.
Viewed as a religious dissenter by his motherland and summarily exiled to what was then known as West Prussia, Wybe made an indelible mark upon his new place of residence.
In Danzig he became famous for his inventions, which included a horse-driven dredger to transport soil, a river ice-cutter and an aqueduct that carried water from the Radunia River to the Hucisko region. And then in 1644 he unveiled his masterpiece – the world’s first-ever multiple support aerial cableway.
After his death in 1653, and for nearly 500 years since, the town still remembers the pioneering Dutch migrant with a Wiebe Wall, Wiebe Square, a Wiebe armory and a Bastion Wiebe.
Let’s start at the very beginning
Wybe’s simple yet ingenious contraption is considered the first large-scale operational cable lift system in European history, but the recorded use of rudimentary ropeways first appeared much earlier.
The Japanese historical epic Taikeiki, written in early 14th century, recounts the story of a Japanese emperor who escapes via a valley ropeway when surrounded by enemy forces. He lowers himself into a basket held by the ropeway and is pulled to safety.
In Europe the Bellifortis, the first fully illustrated military manual that dates back to the early 15th century, carries an illustration of the ropeway and how it can be used in a military application.
And in Fausto Veranizio’s Machinae Novae, his published masterwork of 1616 that depicts 56 different machines and concepts in 49 hand-drawn illustrations, he illustrates a bicable passenger ropeway concept. Passengers ride in a wooden box, travelling over pulleys on a fixed role. The occupants pulling themselves along, propel the box.
So in truth, a few other, less sophisticated ropeways and cableways were in existence before Wybe’s great invention, but his version was supreme in that it:
- Was the first industrial system to use a cable in loop and continuous motion for longer than 200 metres
- Was the first large-scale system to use multiple “vehicles” or cable cars
- Was the first of its kind that incorporated multiple pylons, equipped with pulleys, to support the cable
- Unloaded the contents of the cable cars by means of a swing
The original Harties Cableway, which was constructed some 330 years after Wybe’s chef-d'oeuvre, employs a similar concept to his original. It too has multiple cable cars (14) and supportive pylons that run the length of the cableway. Today the latest technologies, including touch screens and cabin locators, make the Harties Cableway a state-of-the-art visitor attraction for travellers in and around Hartebeespoort.
Facts and figures for this piece sourced from:
- Wikipedia entry on Adam Wybe
- History of Dutch refugees in Poland
- History of cableway systems in Europe