The capstan made hard work quite a bit easier


Way back in antiquity, man himself had to provide any muscle power needed to perform useful work. This, of course, drastically limited the amount of the work that could be performed.

Then, probably 50 or 60 centuries ago, faced with moving a heavy object, an enterprising individual figured out how to tie a rope from his cow’s horns to that load and save his own back. The cow undoubtedly required a bit of persuasion to make it give its full attention to moving the load, but the weight was moved.


Animal power was born, and the use of animals for draft power soon became widespread. It became apparent, however, that hitching animals directly to a really heavy load usually resulted in balky animals, a teamster worn out from beating and berating the poor beasts, and an unmoved load.

So, man being the ingenious cuss he is, some unknown character devised the first capstan. A Greek poet, named Nonnos, of Panopolis, who lived during the 4th century AD, wrote in his 48 volume epic poem Dionysiaca, of the “ … oxen trudging round and round on the ground in everlasting circumambulation about one capstan, irrigate the vinestock with their water.”

About the same time, an anonymous Roman author wrote of one of the enormous warships used by the Roman army at the time.

“In its hull, or hollow interior, oxen, yoked in pairs to capstans, (turn) wheels attached to the sides of the ship; paddles, (on the) wheels, (beat) the water with their strokes like oar-blades as the wheels revolve, … their action producing rapid motion (of the ship).”

Most of us have seen a pirate movie where a dozen or so sailors, enthusiastically bellowing a sea chantey, strain to push the arms of a round drum, whose axle is firmly attached to the deck, around in a circle, as a hawser winds itself around the drum, lifting the heavy anchor.

That drum is a capstan, and ship’s capstans are probably what most folks think of in the unlikely event they think of a capstan at all.

Many uses

Capstans, however, had many other uses than raising ship’s anchors. Heavy loads were often moved from one spot to another by oxen, horses or mules on a capstan. Quarries used them to move large blocks of stone; houses and other buildings were moved by the method, and many wooden bridges, which were usually built on dry land, were pulled into position across streams by animal-powered capstans.

A basic capstan consists of a wooden drum mounted on a vertical axle that’s securely fastened down so it’s immobile. A series of arms, or levers, are inserted around the circumference of the drum, usually at the top.

Men pushing, or animals pulling, on these levers are able to exert a lot of power through the miracle of leverage. This power is transmitted to the drum around which is wound a rope, cable or chain, the other end of which is attached to a heavy load. As the drum is turned, the line winds around it and the load is drawn toward the drum.

Agricultural uses for capstans varied widely. Improving cropland by pulling stumps, moving large rocks, and draining wet fields by the use of a mole-plow were probably the most common jobs that could be performed by animal power on a capstan.

I recently read of a man in England who, in 1800, developed a double drum capstan to pull a mole-plow through his wet fields — the motive power on the capstan was a team of eight women.

Portable capstans on wheels so they could be pulled from job to job were available during the 1800s. Early models were held in place by chains and stakes or earth anchors, but later versions had sophisticated mechanisms that allowed the machine’s frame to be lowered to the ground where metal anchors, or “crabs,” penetrated the soil and held the capstan in place.

Oxen-powered capstans have been used to move heavy loads rather recently. The 3G Construction Company in Holderness, N.H., which is still in operation, specializes in restoring historic buildings, waterwheels and covered bridges.


The Auchumpkee Creek bridge, built in the 1890s near Thomaston, Ga., was destroyed by a flood in 1994. The Federal Emergency Management Agency coughed up $166,000 and local folks raised $42,000 more for the restoration.

Arnold Graton of 3G rebuilt the bridge on land and then, just so oxen wouldn’t have all the fun, used teams of horses and mules in addition to oxen on the capstan to move the rebuilt bridge frame into position.

The move began July 3, 1997, and it reportedly took 34 hours to inch into place.

The 3G firm also built a new covered bridge in Frankenmuth, Mich. Begun in 1979, the two lane structure carries automobile traffic across the Cass River and is 239 feet long and weighs 230 tons.

It was moved into position in January, 1980, by two oxen on a capstan. The operation took 12 days and the bridge moved at the stately pace of three inches per minute.

Slow going

Milton Graton compared the operation to “Moving a china cabinet full of china.”

By the way, the difference between a capstan and a windlass is that the axle of a capstan is vertical, while that of a windlass is horizontal.

Capstans are still used on ships to raise anchors and for other purposes, but they’re all power driven — no more swarms of sailors heaving against the arms of a capstan in time to a chantey.

A capstan is also the spindle upon which a video or recording tape is wound.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.


  1. Hi there!
    I’ve just been reading your article on capstans. Sometimes I sing a sea shanty called “Paddy Lay Back” or “Paddy get back”. The chorus has a line “Paddy lay back, take in the slack, heave away your capstan heave a pawl”. I imagine the men using the capstan to raise the anchor, and I suppose that the ship would be rolling slightly in the swell, so that at times the anchor chain or hawser would slacken and at other times it would tauten, and the song means “haul now, take in the slack while the ship rolls towards the anchor”. The capstan’s non-return ratchet mechanism, of which a pawl is part, would stop them losing what they’d gained when the ship rolled the other way. Now we come to my question: Did sailors ‘haul’ by walking backwards, as men do today in a staged tug of war against an opposing team, or did they push the capstan beams in front of them? The sea shanty’s words “lay back, take in the slack” suggest men leaning back and digging their heels in (as in a tug of war). Yet the entertainment industry would have us believe that men pushed the spar or beam in front of them round a capstan. Do you know which is true? I don’t, and I’d like to find out. I know that’s more of a nautical question rather than a farming one, but I thought you might know, or know someone who would. Obviously one could do it either way, but I have a feeling that the human body could bring more force to bear leaning back and digging in the heels. So perhaps they did it that way for really heavy loads (such as an anchor), and the other way for lighter loads, such as raising sails.


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