Excavators, diggers, bulldozers…call them as you will, they have been a part of urban and rural landscapes for our living memories. 

We’re so accustomed to seeing them on building sites, farms, roadworks and mining projects that it’s hard to imagine a world without them – a world where manual labour was used exclusively to move earth and dig, aided only with shovels and pickaxes; but this was the standard until the late eighteen hundreds.

The first ever excavator

The excavator is a fairly recent invention with the first incarnation being accredited to William Smith Otis in 1835 who, at the age of 22, invented the steam shovel.

William Smith Otis was a partner of Philadelphia contracting firm Carmichael & Fairbanks, who were heavily invested in the up and coming arena of railway construction.

The first power shovel was designed to replace the need for manual labour, however, due to the omnipresent availability of cheap labour the idea didn’t boast immediate market penetration.

The pre-production version of this invention was patented in 1839. The “Crane-Excavator for Excavating and Removing Earth” was a crane mounted on a railroad car. The machine consisted of a bucket, lifted by a crane that utilised a system of pulleys to move earth from the ground and dump it into a railcar. 

Otis died in 1839 at the age of 26. Had he lived a long and healthy life, he would have seen that by the 1870s the steam shovel had become a key element in America’s mining operations.

Eventually machines like these would be used in the digging of the Panama Canal and in historical engineering projects, such as digging the foundations of early skyscrapers. 

The evolution of the excavator took a leap forward with the introduction of hydraulics. The first hydraulic system was invented by W.G. Armstrong & Co invented in 1882; this was applied 15 years later to the first hydraulic excavator by Kilcore Machine Co. 

Before the introduction of hydraulics, all excavators utilised cables and pulleys. These excavators coexisted with new hydraulic technology between the 1880’s and the 1930’s, until hydraulic technology took over.

The History of the Mini Excavator

The initial invention of the excavator would make the concept of a mini excavator seem counter-intuitive. If the excavator was designed to move large amounts of earth, why would you want a smaller version?

The answer: to add accessibility to power. The origin of the first mini excavator is somewhat contentious, with the Japanese company Yanmar introducing the first diesel powered self-propelled mini excavator in 1968. 

The invention is said to have been conceived to meet the demands of a booming real estate sector, under pressure from economic growth and the demand for new housing in built-up areas. Japan’s cityscapes are notoriously crammed, and solutions were required that could replace the manual labour being used for digging and demolition, but that could access restricted areas. 

The YNB 300 was Yanmar Construction Company’s answer to this issue and is considered by some to be the world’s first mini excavator, followed shortly afterwards by YNB600C. The YNB600C included a swing boom and was able to dig against walls.

However, a very similar invention predated this machine by nearly a decade. The “Smalley” had no engine and sat upon two wheels on a single axis. This excavator moved by the operator using the digging arm to pull the machine forward on the two wheels. Richard Smalley’s two-wheeled excavator first appeared in 1959, with 100 models being shipped to Japan, possibly serving as an inspiration for the YNB 300. 

Mini Excavators today

We’ve come a long way since the invention of the first digger. Nowadays these machines are available from a long list of manufacturers with an ample range of features. Mini excavators or compact excavators are those with an operating weight of below 6 tonnes. This is, however, not etched in stone as some sources and manufacturers set the maximum weight at anywhere between 4.5 to 8.5 tonnes. 

The most valued feature of mini excavators is usually versatility and manoeuvrability, in particular their ability to pass through narrow gates or doorways,with a number of models featuring retractable tracks for this purpose.

Mini excavators are popularly used for small excavation, construction and DIY projects.They are often seen in use in roadworks, for installing and repairing pipes or laying cables, for farming projects, grave digging or landscaping.


Just like their largest counterparts, mini excavators can be fitted with a range of attachments to allow them to perform different functions. Different types of bucket can be fitted for digging deep narrow trenches, for moving large volumes of soil or for shovelling snow or gravel.

Hammer or breaker attachments can be fitted to enable the digger to break up concrete, rock or asphalt; grapplers can be fitted for grabbing and shifting materials such as logs and augurs are useful for making precise holes for installing pipes or fence posts. These are to name but a few.

The evolution of the excavator

The most important advancements in excavator technology of our time are focused on both machine efficiency and energy efficiency. 

Improvements to machine design have included the appearance of the zero tail-swing machine in the late nineties, the introduction of GPS technology and the addition of a diversity of safety features.

Perhaps the most remarkable change of our times is the focus on energy efficiency and low carbon emissions. Recent innovations include hybrid excavators, electric models, advanced particulate filtering systems for diesel engines and engines that run on biofuels. Undoubtedly many more innovations are yet to come.

Mini excavators have certainly found their place over the last six decades, establishing themselves as one of the most useful and accessible machines in modern day plant.

If you think that a mini digger might be the right machine for your next project and you’d like more information, get in touch with Central Plant Hire today.

We have a 33-year history in the industry, specialising in the self-drive hire of mini diggers, dumpers and plant equipment in the Sussex and Surrey area. Call us on 01293 851 320 or email us on emailing hire@centralplanthire.co.uk.

Central Plant Hire can offer expert advice and the best machines for each job, so get in touch today!

This website is using cookies More InfomationThat's Fine