Everything You Wanted to Know About the History of Conveyors

Conveyors are essential to quarrying, mining, and mineral processing operations, but we sometimes take them for granted. Did you know that it was not so long ago in human history that these hardworking machines didn’t exist? Imagine your surface or open pit mining operation without any conveyors – things would not be moving very quickly or efficiently, and the whole undertaking would be a lot more dangerous!

To show conveyors a little appreciation, we’re taking a look at their history from their roots in the late 1700s through decades of improvement and innovation that transformed them into the reliable machines we depend on today.

The earliest conveyors

If conveyors have a single inventor or first installation site, that information has sadly been lost to time. What is known is that while Henry Ford made conveyors famous with his automobile assembly lines in the early 20th century, he did not invent them (as many people incorrectly believe) – he just improved upon old technology.

In fact, various sources point to 1795 as the year when conveyors first appeared. These early conveyors were short, made from leather belts and wooden beds, and were hand-operated. They were mainly used in ports to move agricultural products from shore to ship.

Revolutionary improvements

As the Industrial Revolution took hold in Great Britain during the 18th century, and then a little bit later in America, manual labor in many production environments began to be phased out in favor of steam-powered machinery. Steam power was the “hot” new tech at the time!

Less than a decade after conveyors were initially created, the first steam-operated conveyor was put into use by the British Navy. The year was 1804, and while you may think that this new, machine-driven conveyor would have been tasked with loading ships, it was actually located in a bakery operation that produced biscuits for sailors to eat! In any case, this improvement meant that conveyors no longer had to be hand-cranked, which made them more useful for more applications.

Machine driven conveyors caught on quickly and began appearing in all sorts of industries, though it would still be almost 100 years before they would be put to work in mining operations. Railcars were still the preferred method of moving aggregate and coal from within mines to surface operations for much of the 1800s. This began to change, though, as new belt materials like rubber and steel appeared.

New belt materials

In 1844, inventor Charles Goodyear patented Vulcanized rubber. This innovation made rubber a much more stable substance that didn’t react negatively to temperature changes. And while some sources report that rubber had been used as a conveyor belt material in earlier days, it certainly was not ideal. It became hard and rigid in cold environments and tended to melt and get sticky when warmed.

It’s true that the first conveyors introduced for use in the transportation of mined aggregate and coal were actually steel. Sandvik was the first manufacturer to produce these belts beginning in 1902.

It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1905, that mining engineer and inventor Richard Sutcliffe would introduce the first underground conveyor belt, which was made from layered cotton and rubber. At that time, steel belts were adopted more widely in the food production industry, while rubber-covered belts became the norm in mining, quarrying, and mineral processing due to their superior durability and flexibility.

Rails are out, conveyors are in

With Sutcliffe’s underground conveyor belt, mining and quarrying were revolutionized over the following few decades, as massive quantities of material could now be moved from the extraction point with much less labor. No longer did expensive rail lines need to be laid and maintained. And when a mine’s LOM (expected life of the mine) was over, a conveyor was much easier to pack up and remove than a rail line, which was pretty much permanent.

It did take some good publicity to popularize conveyors, however, as news of technical innovations didn’t spread as quickly back then as it does today. Plus, it certainly was not as easy to purchase and set up conveyors in the early days.

In 1908, inventor Hymle Goddard patented the first roller conveyor, and then things really started to get moving. Henry Ford famously began using conveyors on the assembly lines in his automobile plants around 1913, and soon problem-solvers in countless industries began refining conveyors and inventing new types, as well. In the quarrying, mining, and mineral processing industries, conveyors were quickly replacing the locomotive and rail lines throughout the 1920s until the outbreak of war in the 1940s.

Conveyors just keep getting better

Several 20th-century conveyor innovations have gotten us to where we are today. America’s involvement in World War II slowed mining and quarrying at home for a time, but wartime was great for conveyors – the shortage of rubber spawned the first synthetic belt materials during this time.

The rapid growth in the post-war American economy in the 1950s spurred even more conveyor improvements. For example, the turnover conveyor was patented in 1957, which reduced the costs to run conveyors continuously due to improved belt longevity. Another major conveyor innovation was the invention of the telescopic conveyor in 1992 by Thor.

The present and the future: computerization and customization

In recent years, computerization has made conveyors even more reliable and easier to work with in quarrying, mining, and mineral processing operations. Conveyors are now “smart” and can alert operators to maintenance needs. They can also run, stop, and change speed in response to programmed commands. Computerization has led to more customization of conveyor systems to achieve the exact outcomes mine and quarry operators need.

Indeed, finding the right conveyor for your needs now often involves customizing a system that can efficiently and economically move material from extraction point to stockpile and beyond, no matter what challenges the mine or quarry site present.

In the future, better machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) is predicted to refine conveyors to reduce maintenance and breakdowns even further and remove more direct human oversight while work is underway. The result will be increased safety in our mines and quarries, as well as increased efficiency.

Curious about what modern conveyors can do for your operations? Here at Kemper Equipment, we are dedicated to finding the best conveyor systems to revolutionize your mining and quarrying projects. Get in touch with us now to talk about your requirements and goals.