Wolffkran’s new 130-page large format, corporate publication Zwischen Himmel und Erde (Between Heaven and Earth) tells, in English and German, the story of the development of one of the world’s leading crane manufacturers.

The company was born in 1854, when successful local manufacturer Friedrich August Wolff set up an iron foundry in his native Heilbronn, Germany. The history of Heilbronn during the industrial revolution, and the growing importance of the town in the late 19th century, forms the background to the development of the Wolff family business. Under his son Julius Wolff’s control, in the 1870s, the company first became focussed on cranes and elevators.

Julius Wolff

Julius Wolff

Initially, Wolff’s cranes were used in workshops and assembly lines, rather than manufacturing. However, in 1898, the company sold its first hand operated slewing crane, based on designs that had been used in house. These cranes were sold with an optional electric drive, and used in quarries, stockyards, and for loading.

A key development came in 1910, with the introduction of the first tower crane that could be assembled on the ground, and then erected using its own electric hoisting winch. This was presented to the public at the Leipzig Exhibition of 1913. Four years later, in 1917, senior engineer Gottlob Göbel developed the first crane with separate driving, luffing and slewing motors, allowing for simultaneous control of all three movements.

The twenties proved a time of mixed fortunes for the company. As the loser of the First World War, and with its economy in ruins, Germany came close to financial collapse. Wolffkran itself faced disaster in May 1924, when a fire swept through its factory. However, new trends in architecture, with the popularity of heavy stone buildings spreading from Italy, and industrial construction techniques around the world, provided a fertile ground for the growing use of tower cranes.

Early rail-mounted Wolff tower cranes on site

Early rail-mounted Wolff tower cranes on site

Throughout the twenties and thirties, the company saw its cranes used in dams, bridges, and other reinforced concrete structures. In response to this demand, it developed the Form series of serially produced tower cranes, with a trolley jib, and capacities of up to 10t, with a 40m jib.

In the 1930s, Germany fell under the control of fascism. The Nazi party’s program of motorway building, and its preparations for war, increased demand for cranes. In 1944, with Germany facing defeat, workers called up for military service, iron production halted by a lack of resources and Heilbronn devastated by allied bombing, production at the factory came to a halt.

With the war over, and the country in desperate need of reconstruction, plans were laid for a new production facility. The old iron foundry was abandoned, but by 1948 crane production was able to start again. A new model joined the Form series, the Form 15, with a capacity of 3,000kg, and the ability to be erected using its own electric hoist.

The first of the so-called ‘H’ series tower cranes went on sale in 1952. The 2,300kg capacity, bottom slewing H cranes featured a folding tower and boom, which could be towed behind a lorry.

As demand increased, it became necessary to expand beyond the 100-person strong business, and a partnership was formed with MAN group, which took a 51% stake in 1953. In the 1960s, the company developed the S series of modular cranes, followed in 1975 by the SL series, with a slipring motor and eddy brakes, allowing for smoother movement.

After this history of the company’s first 125 years, the book focusses on Wolff’s key modern achievements. A highlight is the use of Wolff cranes to move Egyptian monuments at Abu Simbel in the 1960s. In the eighties and nineties, the company developed new electronic and remote control systems, and further increased the capacities of its cranes.

In 2005, MAN group sold Wolffkran to new owners, a Swiss-German consortium. The book closes with an interview with Dr Hans-Peter Koller and Dr Peter Schiefer, the new owners of the business.

Between Heaven and Earth

Between Heaven and Earth – Wolffkran’s corporate history

Throughout the book, early designs and drawings provide a fascinating account of the development of the modern tower crane. The book’s weakness lays in the slightly clumsy English translation, which appears alongside the German original text, and its slavish adherence to the Wolff company line, at the expense of placing the firm’s successes within a broader history of the tower crane.