Medieval Builders' Windlass

Contributed by Chesterfield Museum

Medieval Builders' Windlass

This amazing object was used over 600 years ago in the building of Chesterfield's famous Crooked Spire church. If you've ever wondered how churches, cathedrals, and castles could be built without modern cranes, here's your answer.

Heavy building materials were attached to a rope wound round the axle of the windlass, and then lifted by a person getting inside and treading the wheel around. The wheel was installed as high up on the building as possible and would be dismantled and moved up again as construction progressed. The medieval carpenters marked each piece of timber so they could easily take it apart and put it back together again.

Very few of these machines have survived to the present day, and the Chesterfield wheel (tree-ring dated to 1360-1400) is unusual in being easily accessible in a museum rather than still high up in the tower of its church.

This type of windlass is known to have been used as early as Roman times, and the principle behind it (the changing of rotational motion into vertical motion) underlies later powered machinery: for example the equipment used to raise coal from underground workings.

A fine example of human ingenuity and engineering.

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Chesterfield, Derbyshire


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