Ladders are one of those incredibly useful pieces of household equipment that we take for granted as always having ‘just been there’. However, if you’re ever perching precariously on the top rung of a ladder clearing the gutter, and find yourself inextricably wondering who invented them – then this article will help.
Spanish cave paintings show ladders being used in the Mesolithic period in Western Europe, with further usage in the Middle Ages confirmed through language references in Old English and German. However, the first folding step ladder was invented in 1862 by US carpenter John H. Balsley.
Join me as we step back through the rungs of history to discover the story of ladders – from the Mesolithic period and Western Europe in the Middle Ages, to the USA in the 20th Century. We’re history nerds at Take a Yard and it’s a fascinating journey! 🙂
When Were Ladders Invented?
Anybody with access to Wikipedia can tell you when the first, modern step ladder was invented (and we’ll fill you in later, to save you looking it up). But what about the first actual ladder? Well, that’s a trickier story, and because ladders have been around for a very long time, it’s harder to tell when they first appeared.
What we do have, however, is evidence of ladders being used in the Mesolithic period. There’s a fascinating painting on the wall of the Spider Caves in Valencia, Spain. It’s a remarkably detailed and delicate-looking piece of art, and it shows two people using what’s clearly a ladder to get honey from a bees’ nest.
It’s a very thin and wobbly looking ladder, thought to be made from some type of grass. But it’s a ladder nonetheless, and it shows that we’ve been using them to help us get to out-of-reach places for a very long time.
This painting is the earliest evidence; however historians believe that ladders would have been used earlier than this. Certainly, the Ancient Egyptians used them, and they might have developed this essential piece of equipment long before a Mesolithic Spanish artist painted one on a wall.
What Did People Use Before Ladders?
We don’t know what people used before ladders, but we can have a good guess. For example, some tribes today use bamboo poles for climbing, their feet finding the natural knots.
Notched poles and knotted vines make use of the natural materials, and it’s not hard to see how a vine evolved into a rope ladder, as seen on the cave painting. Perhaps vines were used as ropes to help people scramble up and down slopes more easily.
As the famous saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Humans developed a taste for honey, and the bees lived high up in the trees. It wouldn’t have been easy to negotiate a single pole while carrying a honeycomb and batting away the bees, so a new technology developed to make life easier.
With different needs across the globe, ladders will have emerged at intervals and with different end goals. The need to climb, either to reach safety or find food, is pretty universal. Today, as we clamber up to clean the gutters or change a lightbulb, we should be grateful that our ancestors came up with such a neat and practical solution.
Why is it Called a Ladder?
The word ladder comes from an Old English (Anglo Saxon) word “hlæder”, which means “steps”. Like many Old English words, ladder comes from Old German, in this case “leitara” (“Leiter” in modern German). The root for these could come from a much older word meaning “to lean”.
Ladder came to refer specifically to two vertical side rails or steels with horizontal rungs between them used for stepping (or ledder steles and læddrestæfæ, to use the Old English terms).
Interestingly, “stairs” is also from an Old English word, “stǣger”, which means “to climb”. Both objects are used to help us move between levels, and both are named after the action we make while we’re using them.
What Were Early Ladders Used For?
We’re sure they had more uses than collecting honey! It’s likely that ladders were used by tribes that lived in high-up caves or in trees. Elevated living was safer, from floods, animals, and any rival tribes. The ladder could be pulled up or hidden, and the people and their home would remain safe.
They became a staple part of life in many cultures, and were an alternative to stairs in poorer dwellings. In the Middle Ages, ladders were used in siege warfare, slung over the battlements so the invading troops could scale the town or castle walls. Not an appealing prospect. The rope ladder played many essential roles in life at sea, from embarking to climbing the rigging.
Just like today, if there was a job that you couldn’t do from ground level, you fetched a ladder. One of the beauties of the ladder is that it isn’t fixed, and it can go wherever you need it to go (even up your enemies’ castle walls). This portability explains why even though staircases became increasingly common, we still (literally) hung onto our ladders.
What Came First Stairs or Ladders?
Technically, stairs existed before ladders, as naturally occurring formations. There are plenty of paths up hills and cliffs that look like steps hewn from the rock. The more a path is walked along, the more noticeable these steps would become.
However, the evolution of stairs as a domestic feature will have taken a while. Opinions vary; however stairs seem to have existed from around 6000BC. Early staircases led to temples rather than bedrooms, and symbolized humans reaching for divinity. If you want to imagine a symbolic ancient staircase, just picture a pyramid.
Alongside these grand structures were the simple stone or wooden steps that led to homes built off the ground. The modern staircase is like a marriage between these two types: architectural, but practical and domestic.
So, the answer to the question is that stairs came first, but only accidentally and crafted by nature, not humans. It’s likely that ladders were the first to be consciously created.
Who Invented The Folding Ladder?
Ladders began life (we think) made from flexible materials like vines. These could be easily rolled up and transported. Later, we worked out that more rigid ladders were safer and easier to climb, and didn’t have that disconcerting habit of swaying around when we stood on them. But – rigid wooden ladders were far more cumbersome to carry and store.
Enter an American carpenter, John H. Balsley. He obtained his patent for a folding stepladder in January 1862. The classic V-shaped stepladder had been around for longer than that. Unlike a straight ladder, these didn’t need a building or other solid structure to lean against, as they had back props. They are a sturdy and safe-feeling design, and were so handy in the home and yard.
The trouble was, they took up a lot of space. Imagine walking down the block with an open stepladder, and you’ll get the idea. You also couldn’t store them away neatly. John H. Balsley’s stroke of genius was to simply put hinges at the top of the ladder, which enabled the back supports to be folded in towards the ladder portion.
It was now much easier to transport and store a stepladder; and since then, they’ve become a feature in most homes (now often made from aluminum and stainless steel).
Mr Balsley also added a safety feature to his new style of ladder: he made the rungs flat. Prior to this, the rungs were rounded, which weren’t as easy to grip. Next time you head into the loft, think about John H. Balsley and his safer step design.
Often at this point, we find out that the inventor died shortly afterwards, penniless and unappreciated. Happily, former carpenter John H. Balsley became a wealthy businessman on the back of his successful inventions, married Sophia with whom he shared a beautiful house in Dayton, Ohio, and lived into his seventies.
So it turns out the history of ladders is actually very interesting, with usage going back through prehistory and the Middle Ages to the present day.
If you think about it, there would be so many things we just couldn’t do without ladders – and they certainly make our lives a lot easier.
So perhaps next time we’re balancing on that top step trying to paint the house, or leaning over to get some leaves out of the gutter, we should acknowledge the contribution of those Mesolithic cave people in Spain, and step ladder inventor John H. Balsley – for making ‘getting stuff done’ around the home a lot simpler and safer. 🙂
Homeowner and property investor Larry James founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >