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Drawing of crane in Vetruvius port.
Wheel construction.
Wheel construction.
Group photo.
Diderot Crane.
Perronet Crane.

Building Replicas of the Perronet and the Diderot T Cranes

These historic replica cranes are the result of a program funded for two years by the Davis Foundation Grant through the Colleges of the Fenway to create interdisciplinary courses between Mass College of Art, Wentworth Institute of Technology and Wheelock College. Handshouse Studio directed and coordinated the making of these crane replicas, in collaboration with the Colleges of the Fenway.

The Perronet Crane

The Perronet crane, designed by Jean-Rudolph Perronet in the 1750s, was created for the construction of a stone bridge over the Loire River in Orleans, France. From the Middle Ages through the 18th century, human-powered cranes were used throughout Northern Europe for unloading heavy cargo on docks and lifting materials at construction sites. These ingenious mechanical devices played an important part in the economic and social development of the cities that owned them. Cranes were often depicted in significant etchings, paintings, and manuscripts and were included in city maps and plans. It seems that their physical size and their economic importance made them symbols of pride for the trades that employed them and for the communities that benefited from their use.

Professors and students from Massachusetts College of Art, Wentworth Institute of Technology and Wheelock College of the Colleges of the Fenway chose these early cranes as topic for a collaborative project linking the different disciplines of architecture, art history, and sculpture. The three-college team was organized through Handshouse Studio by Handhouse president, Rick Brown, professor of sculpture at Massachusetts College of Art, Don Oster, associate professor of architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Marjorie Hall, associate professor of art history at Wheelock College.

The project began in the individual classrooms of Rick Brown, Don Oster, and Marjorie Hall. Each professor taught a course related to the project with the objective of guiding students to research the historical, cultural, and economic significance of historical artifacts involving the crane. The crane was then cut and assembled at Handshouse Studio (Norwell, Mass.) during a five-day workshop in April 2002. Each day during the workshop between forty and eighty art students, architecture students, liberal art students, professors, alumnae and master timber framers gathered to use the knowledge and skills they had learned in the classroom to build the 50-foot wooden human-powered crane with 18th century materials and technology.

The students of these three colleges worked alongside each other guided by a selection of professionals from the Timber Framers Guild, some of the most talented timber frame craftspeople, engineers and educators including co-executive director of the Guild Joel McCarty (Alstead, NH), wheelwright Jim Kricker (Saugerties, NY), and timber frame preservationist Henry Russell (Bristol, England). The project gives students an opportunity to hone their skills in architectural design, woodwork, metalwork, comprehensive research, experimental archaeology, project planning, and a wide range of organizational skills associated with orchestrating a large-scale construction project. The crane was successfully built and raised by old-world methods and human power.

The Perronet crane built at Handshouse Studio has since continued to educate the broader pubic. The crane was exhibited in New Bedford, MA in connection with the Schooner Ernestina during the summer of 2002, in Burlington, Vermont, during the Timber Framers Guild 2002 Eastern Conference. It is now standing in front of the Wentworth Institute of Technology and Massachusetts College of Art on Huntington Ave in Boston. Articles on the Perronet crane were published in the July 2003 issue of Fine Homebuilding and the April 2003 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The five-day workshop was documented and aired on the National Geographic Today television show and Real World of WGBH public television for an educational program on applications of math formulas.

The Perronet Crane project was funded by a grant from the Davis Foundation of the Colleges of the Fenway, Mass College of Art, the Colleges of the Fenway, the Norwell Education Foundation and S.H.O.R.E. from the Scituate High School.

Diderot T Crane

The Diderot T crane, a 25 foot human-powered crane, was built by Mass College of Art’s Culture and Technology course in the spring of 2003. As a continuation of the original COF grant, the goal was to institutionalize the project in the curriculum. Fifteen students studied several human-powered cranes from the L’Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot from the 1700s. The students developed drawings and models and selected the T Crane to build full scale. In a four-day workshop in April 2003, the Culture and Technology class constructed the individual parts at Handshouse Studio in Norwell. On May 2, the Diderot T Crane was assembled in front of the Mass College of Art Tower building on Huntington Ave in Boston. This crane is exhibited in conjunction with the Perronet Crane installed on the other side of Huntington Ave in front of the Wentworth Institute of Technology Dormitory.

Professor Rick Brown taught the course and directed the Diderot T Crane workshop and installation. Mass College of Art students again worked closely with timber framers from the Timber Framers Guild to construct the T Crane at the Handshouse Studio workshop.

These two cranes were made possible through the broad vision of the Colleges of the Fenway who consistently supported these projects and the Davis Foundation Grant that funded the projects and the classes. The drawings, models, and research gathered by the participating students of the Perronet and Diderot crane projects are exhibited in the lobby of the Artist’s Residence at Mass College of Art on Huntington Ave.

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