Who invented the Shovel? (Invention Timeline Explained)

There are some tools out there that do such a good job people barely give them any thought. For example, would you happen to know who was responsible for the shovel? The invention of the shovel and its evolution is a fascinating process. Let’s dig in (pun intended) and see what we can find.

Who invented the shovel?

The first shovels looked to be designed by the Neolithic people. At the very least, the very first shovels were found to be from that era. That’s the thing with tools as simple (and valuable) as the shovel. There’s always a chance that archaeologists will find proof from earlier eras.

The shovel’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • The Neolithic
    Invented the first shovels

    The first shovels were primitive yet effective tools made from the shoulder blades of oxen. 

  • The Cherokee Indians
    Developed tools closer to the modern shovels

    The Cherokee Indians developed shovels made of bones attached to wooden sticks. Leather straps were used to keep everything together.

  • Frederick Winslow Taylor
    Science of shoveling

    Developed the best-practice methods and the science of shoveling.

  • William Smith Otis
    Created the steam shovel

    William Smith Otis invented the steam shovel at a surprisingly young age.

When was the shovel invented?

Proof of the very first shovel was found in Russia, dated to be about 6000 years old. It used an elk antler section, and archaeologists state that it likely used a bone or wood handle.

A brief history of shovels

While it might seem like the shovel isn’t the most entertaining of topics, it’s undoubtedly one of the most valuable tools — especially in early history. As stated above, the Neolithic was responsible for the first shovels. The oldest was found in Russia, while others still were found in Britain, all made by the Neolithic. It goes to show the ingenuity of the human spirit where even the earliest humans were doing their best to fashion primitive tools.

Considering the overall importance of shovels, it comes as no surprise that there’s more proof of early shovels with different designs. With the coming of the Bronze Age, humans made use of wooden shovels that date back as early as 1750 BC.

With the introduction of smelting, Iron Age tools such as iron shovels were the next step. They were discovered in Ohio and are dated to be over 600 years old. The fascinating thing about shovels is that you don’t need complicated blueprints to develop them. From the use of bone to wood to different types of metal, the only natural evolution of the shovel is the change of materials over the years.

That said, while shovels are relatively simple tools, the art of shoveling can be a rather complicated process, with the use of different materials based on the density and overall texture playing a huge role in its success. Frederick Winslow Taylor applied science to shoveling with various best-practice methods. 

The steam-powered shovel was invented by William Otis, who received a patent for it in 1839. It played a major role in various works before the development of diesel-powered shovels pushed it out of favor in the 1930s.

The shovel timeline

  1. 4000 BC
    The first shovel in Russia

    Discovered in Russia, the first shovel was made out of elk bone.

  2. 3000 BC
    The first shovels found in Britain

    The first shovels found in Britain were dated to be around 5000 years old. They were also tools fashioned from bone.

  3. 1750 BC
    The first wooden shovels found in Cheshire

    The evolution of the shovel continues, as the wooden variant of the shovel is discovered in Alderley Edge copper mines. 

  4. The 1890s
    The science of shoveling

    Frederick Winslow Taylor developed the best-practice methods used for shoveling various materials.

  5. The 1900s
    Development of the steam and diesel-powered shovels

    The evolution of the shovel continues with the development of steam-powered shovels, large machines for excavation. It was eventually outpaced by diesel-powered shovels.

Where was the shovel invented?

While the shovel was found in various places all over the world, it was first found in Russia, dated over 6000 years.

The importance of shovels

  • A primitive, yet crucial tool

    The first shovels were found to be made with bone. It showcases human ingenuity, while also showing the need to evolve and use tools for various tasks. Without something as simple as the shovel, humanity’s progress would have been stunted.

  • A look into early progress

    Shovels don’t need blueprints, as it’s a universal design. It’s a look into early progress, and how humans of earlier ages developed more advanced tools.

  • A vital stepping stone

    The shoveling of materials is undoubtedly vital, as it eventually paved the way for the introduction of smelting — which in turn developed more durable shovels. Eventually, the rise of steam-powered shovels would help with excavation and construction.

  • Timeless value

    You’d think that people would use more advanced shovels in this day and age, but the design is the same as it always was. The only difference is the material. Shovels will always be useful.

Shovels by the numbers

  • 22The age of William Smith Otis when he first developed the steam-powered shovel.
  • 1967The year when a wooden shovel was discovered in Turkey, dated to be from 2000 BC. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are — archaeologists will continue to find proof of early shovels everywhere due to how easy it is to design.
  • 48The average length of the modern shovel is 48 inches in length.
  • 10000The earliest range where archaeologists are likely to find evidence of shovels is about 10,000 BC. The fact that shovels are one of the most accessible tools shows that the first shovel found in Russia might not be the oldest. Only time will tell. 

Five facts about Shovels

  • Various materials for the most accessible tool

    The funny thing about shovels is how their development often had to do with the material rather than the design. The design was perfected early on — the only thing that was left was to change the material based on modern techniques. From bone to wood to iron and further beyond, shovels remain similar to how they were a long time ago.

  • A long history of service

    Did you know that shovels only started getting replaced around the 1900s? Even then, steam and diesel-powered shovels are still remarkably popular. It’s a long history of service, when you consider how long humans have been using shovels.

  • A shovel of many sizes

    There was a time when shovels were sold in various sizes. It goes through 0, 00, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and more. These days, 0,00, 1, and 2 are the only sizes of shovels being sold. The #2 shovels (9×12) are the most common.

  • Learning the fulcrum

    For those interested in learning a little bit about how the shovel works, once you shovel dirt or other materials, it acts as a lever. The fulcrum is then located where the tool pivots the ground.

  • Difference between the spade and shovel

    The difference between the two types is primarily  the shape and overall angle of the tool. It’s the reason why shovels are good at handling the loads, whereas the spade is much better at actual digging.

FAQ about shovels

  • Is the shovel a wedge or a lever?

    The shovel acts as a multitool for those looking to shovel dirt out of the ground — particularly the wedge and the lever. The shovel acts as a wedge when you first drive the tool into the dirt. It then acts as a lever when you effectively shovel the dirt off the ground.

  • Did shovels see any use during wars?

    Shovels tend to help in more ways than one, especially when it comes to overall design. While not necessarily the best topic, the hand shovel can be used as an entrenching tool to help  soldiers entrench and get into a better-defended position.

  • How old are shovels, really?

    While the first shovel was found and dated to be about 6000 years old, it’s easy to assume that shovels likely existed as early as people started digging into the earth. The earliest people likely used one tool or another to dig, well before the first shovel was found.

  • What role did shovels play in society?

    The shovel played a pivotal role in early society, especially with the building of a civilization. It was used for farming, which was the first step to building any society. When the early humans started to grow food through farming, it naturally attracted many others, serving to build the first villages and towns.

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