Rope is strands or yarns of fibers twisted together into a stronger form, and is a staple for everyday life all over the world. But how did it originate? What are some things that it has been used for? This weekend, let’s examine the history of this extremely important and useful tool.

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A bundle of rope. Released under a CC0 license.

Rope is as old as humanity itself. It isn’t even a tool confined to humanity – other modern apes are known to make rope, and fossil records indicate that ancient apes did likewise. In the prehistoric era, and much of the ancient one, societies appear to have braided rope by hand. The Egyptians are among the first documented people to use specialized tools in the creation of rope. Rope is so common in every day life that listing all of its uses would take pages, but here are just some of the important functions that it has helped humans perform: Hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting and climbing, harnessing animals (including other humans), and the construction of nets, traps, spears, bows, shelters, baskets, clothes, and rafts, to name a few.

Egypt used ropes to pull canal boats, haul and lift the stones required for their monuments, and even erect some monuments such as obelisks. The Greeks and Romans were perhaps the first to use ropes in cranes, lifting devices, and catapults. China pioneered rope bridges and suspension bridges. In the Inca Empire, one use of rope was the creation of khipu, where strands of rope are knotted according to certain patterns in order to communicate a message. It is increasingly thought that this was a form of writing.

In the Medieval Era throughout Europe, massive manufacturing buildings for making rope were created. Known as “ropewalks,” they contained a long corridor where a full length of strands could be laid out and twisted together. Eventually, some of these workshops stretched over 300 meters/1000 feet long. In some countries, ropewalks are still used.

Over time, various complex machines were invented to aid in the creation of rope, and, with the advent of heavy industry, rope production is now much faster and easier. Also, the use of natural fibers has declined. For many tasks involving great weight, such as suspension bridges or elevators, metal rope is used. Synthetic ropes made from petroleum-based polymers, such as Nylon, Polyester, and Polypropylene, have greatly supplanted traditional fibers such as hemp because they are stronger and lighter. However, both metals and polymers are inferior to natural fiber when it comes to making knots. If you need to make a knot, use natural fiber rope.

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