From the Archives: Ancient Ramp Construction

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week I explore the earliest civilizations that built with⏤ surprise ⏤ ramps.


Information on the Internet about the construction of the great cities and monuments of the Mesoamerican and South American cultures is surprisingly hard to find, it turns out.

McCoy Fields: Relatively Young Dude

Not So Ancient: Me

The Aztecs were real tricky to find stuff on. Almost every supposed "source" detailing its construction techniques immediately starts going on about how they sacrificed people during construction, then doesn't bother to actually discuss the techniques they used. I'm no trained historian, but that seems like sensationalism to me, and it sure doesn't answer my questions.

There are a few interesting tidbits out there, though. Teotihuacan, one of the major Aztec sites, was actually constructed over a thousand years before the Aztecs gained power, by someone else entirely.

The Inca and Mayan empires have a bit more out there to easily find. I had to dig through a lot of nonsense about Mayan prophecies and their mass disappearance, but there was a lot of good stuff. Like this: They actually used a primitive form of limestone-based concrete for much of their construction.

That First Step is a Doozy

One Small Step for a Spring Chicken

The Incans were the easiest to find information on, since most of the stuff on the Internet is about their construction techniques anyhow. Their buildings were famed for being constructed of huge stone blocks in irregular patterns that for together perfectly, without gaps. You can't even stick a knife between the stones.

People go crazy over that, some even going so far as to say that there were aliens helping the Incans. (Some nuts out there.) I think it says more about contractors today than it does about ancient construction. Tight seams just take good workmanship.

The stones in Incan constructions were placed by dragging them up huge earthen ramps on log rollers. Interestingly enough, they took the opposite approach to the ramps than the Egyptians, who just put together giant straight ramps. The reason they could do that when the Egyptians couldn't is pretty simple: the Incan Empire was huge. It was basically the Rome of South America. It could afford to just throw manpower at problems until they were solved.

They did save a little money by using locally quarried limestone or granite, but the empire was wealthy and powerful enough that it could have shipped them halfway across Peru on their excellent system of roads if the whim overtook them. We have tons of archaeological evidence for the Incan ramps, and a few—even still—partially exist.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: (Fork) Lifting Toward 2020

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy begins his blog with a quotation from Oscar Wilde. That's all I really needed. And then his blog just got better and better.

Read his consistently fine perspective HERE.

From the Archives: Ramps, Allium & Google

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. Back now to ramps, one of my favorite inventions...


In the family of quality ramps.

Wild Leeks

You know the first thing I see when I Google "ramps"? (Ignoring those constant ads, of course). A Wikipedia article on ramps. It's a pretty well researched and detailed article, too, listing all sorts of uses for ramps, their discovery and history, even festivals dedicated to them!

The only problem, though, isn't about inclined planes. It's about a plant. Specifically: Allium tricoccum, also known as wild leeks.

So when you Google one of the most important inventions in human history—one of the basic simple machines that makes civilization work—you get a smelly weed that some people like to eat. Maybe it's just me: I think the invention that allowed us to build the pyramids is a little more important than a backyard pest that makes food smell like old socks.

At least if you search on Wikipedia itself, inclined planes are the first thing to pop up. Whoever runs that site seems to know what they're doing, unlike those culinary-minded dudes at Google. It's all that time inside, I'm telling you. It's not healthy. You need fresh air and sunlight every day, so you don't end up drooling over random greenery from your yard.

A refreshing beverage helps the thinking.

That's me, thinking about ramps.

And no, this rant wasn't inspired by the new diet Maggie is putting me on. It's a legitimate complaint. I mean, I don't mind cutting back on red meat even more. I like fish and poultry just fine. I hardly drink more than a beer or two anymore, and I've been watching my cholesterol since my bypass 15 years ago.

I really just think that it's not going to hurt me to eat proper vegetables you find in the grocery store, not expensive health food store stuff I could pull out of my neighbor's yard.

(The one without the dogs, at least. Nice dogs, but I'm not eating anything out of that yard.)

That's not the point, though. I just think that Google is doing inclined planes a real disservice.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Success in Yard Ramp Industrials

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy's big wheels keep on turning with a great riff on the importance of attention to detail.

Dig into the specifics HERE.

From the Archives: Pyramids and Ramps

I've been composing this blog since July of 2014. That's five years and 151 entries. My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. Fitting, then to start from the very beginning, with my very first entry...


The pyramids are among the wonders of the ancient world for a pretty simple reason: they're huge. Doesn't take much to figure that one out. But what got me interested in the pyramids in the first place was their construction.

Great Inventions: The PyramidsThe ancient Egyptians obviously didn't have the technology for moving heavy loads that we did. All they had were a few primitive cranes, some basic levers and rollers, and, of course, ramps.

The old idea about how the Egyptians built the pyramids involved thousands of slaves hauling blocks up huge straight ramps to the top. It looks cool in the movies, but it doesn't actually work that well. The amount of material and labor needed to construct straight ramps to the top—and to continue building them up as the pyramid grows—is pretty close to the amount you'd need to build the actual pyramid itself, not to mention that they haven't actually found any evidence for ramps that colossally huge. Building ramps that huge, I say, is just a waste.

pyr1It seems more likely that they instead either zigzagged the ramp up one side or spiraled it around the pyramid, using uncompleted segments as the ramp. This would have allowed them to construct the vast majority of the pyramid easily, though the top third of the structure would have needed to be moved up, using levers. Since it's so much narrower at the top, though, that top third makes up less than five percent of the total weight of the pyramid. That's working smart.

Historians and archaeologists also think that rather than huge hordes of slaves, the pyramids were constructed by smaller teams of well-paid skilled laborers, who were cheaper than feeding an army of slaves and got things done much quicker. No one's said anything about ancient Egyptian unions, but I've got some cheerful suspicions about that.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Planned Industrial Longevity

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy makes a Ramp Rules-worthy connection between Greta Garbo's perfume and industrial yard ramps.

Sniff it out it HERE.

Mapping the World

The Ortelius Theatrum

And lawn care.

The world map from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

These days you don't see atlases very often. Google Maps are just much more prevalent and often more useful. Atlases are unquestionably a direct ancestor of Google Maps, however. The oldest ever atlas? The Theatrum Orbis Terrarumor “Theatre of the World.” (Sorry, no Greek mythology jokes for you today.)

Originally published in May 1570, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, was written by the mapmaker Abraham Ortelius (my favorite Brabantian). It contained a total of 53 maps, all bound together. Despite being a skilled mapmaker himself, all the maps included were from other mapmakers. (Though he frequently tidied them up a bit.)

Unusually for the time, Ortelius actually credited all 33 mapmakers in the bibliography. He also included a list of other quality mapmakers he knew in the back, which grew longer with every edition published during his lifetime.

Ortelius published 25 editions in his lifetime, the last of which contained 167 maps and was published in seven different languages. Naturally, I hold much admiration for someone who devoted such time and painstaking care to improve on such a singular undertaking. I’d like to think that Maggie thinks of my work on, say, the lawn, with such approval. Though Maggie might say otherwise.

(Confirming: Maggie just said otherwise.)

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was hugely significant. Not only was it vital in pushing forward the navigational feats of the Age of Exploration, it also is considered to be the starting point for the Dutch Golden Age of Cartography, which lasted a solid century.

The maps included in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum were remarkably accurate for their time. Possibly even more importantly, it made geography accessible to the growing middle classes at the time, who hadn't been able to easily afford maps before this.

It massively improved the state of public education at the time, and made the world a more understandable and less mysterious place. That’s a good thing, right?

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Angling Ramps Into Warehouses

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy follows the flow of warehouse scenarios and eloquently shows that many of those streams run through yard ramps.

Check out his great piece HERE.

On Roman Concrete

Learning from the School of Hard Rocks

Stylized painting of the Pantheon in Rome as an example of concrete that lasts.

It's Written in the Concrete

Though the Romans have a pretty impressive reputation, in many regards they weren't nearly so clever as people tend to think they were.

For example, their fabled legions, while effective early in Roman history, became rather useless toward the end: the knight was basically invented by barbarians looking to defeat Roman legions. Even after it became apparent that the legions were a tool of the past, the Romans foolishly just kept sticking with it.

However, one area in which they were unquestionably brilliant was in architecture and construction.

Much has been made of Roman aqueducts and other construction techniques, but one technology that doesn't get discussed nearly as much as it should is their concrete. Roman concrete—known as opus caementicium—is, interestingly, much more durable than modern day concrete.

We have many examples of Roman concrete that have survived all the way to today. The Pantheon in Rome (not to be confused with the Parthenon), for instance, is a concrete dome that has survived intact since 126 AD.

Even more impressive is Roman concrete's resistance to seawater. Seawater is incredibly corrosive to modern buildings, corroding and destroying them in mere decades. We're lucky to get 50 years out of modern concrete. Roman concrete, however, can survive immersion in seawater for centuries or even millennia; plenty of docks and pilings from Roman times can still be found off European shorelines.

What was their secret? Well, we don't know the exact composition of Roman concrete, but we do know one of the major secrets: they used volcanic ash instead of the fly ash we use today. When submerged in seawater, the seawater reacts with the mineral phillipsite, found in volcanic ash. Over time, a new mineral known as tobermorite forms in the cracks of the concrete. As it forms, the concrete actually gets stronger and stronger.

Roman concrete today is stronger than when it was first laid down.

Many people are trying to mimic Roman concrete today. Not only is it more durable and long lasting, but it's also cheaper and more environmentally friendly. The problem, of course, is the extremely long setting time: most builders don't want to wait long enough for Roman concrete to set.

Haste makes waste. Some people are okay with that. Roman concrete endures.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Going Above & Beyond

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy describes how his team focuses on building trust and relationships. It's healthy and refreshing to read of such a fine approach.

Check out his new blog HERE.