The first cable car in the world was built in Gdańsk in 1644, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. City engineer Adam Wybe constructed this mechanism to facilitate fortification work carried out at the city’s ramparts. The machine was admired not only by the townspeople but also by numerous travelers from all over the world.
But first, let’s take a look a little deeper into the past. When Adam Wybe along with his wife, Margareta, and brother Jacob came from the small Dutch town of Harlingen to Royal Prussia, they could sigh with relief. Like many other anabaptist newcomers from the Netherlands, they also managed to flee from the repression of catholic officials sent by King Philip II Habsburg.
It is assumed that the engineer was one of the Frisian Mennonites, who eagerly emigrated to the relatively tolerant Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th and 17th centuries, and established many villages here. Jakub followed this Olęder (Polish name from Dutch immigrants) path and settled in the Izbiska community in Żuławy lowlands. However, Adam chose differently: he preferred the hustle and bustle of the largest metropolis of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: Gdańsk, which back then was commonly known by its German name Danzig.
The first mention of the presence of Wybe in Gdańsk appears in 1616. The City Council commissioned an engineer to build a windmill in the village of Olszynka. Today it is a district of Gdańsk, entirely located in lowlands. This past is still visible today, as the network of drainage ditches and streets lying at the site of former cattle driving routes (Łanowa, Zawodzie, and Modra streets) survived centuries. This commission proves that Wybe already had considerable experience as an engineer because the windmills were very complex and specialized mechanisms.
Initially, he dealt with smaller projects, but the genius and with of the Frisian was quickly noticed. Many other cities, including the capital city of Warsaw, wanted to attract this great builder to settle there permanently. He performed some works in other cities, notably Elbląg and Toruń; he also stayed in the capital for some time. He left Warsaw with the title of a royal engineer. However, he never left Gdańsk perpetually – partly because of the generosity of the City Council and partly because of his love for the city. Here he realized his most famous projects.
Among them was the world’s first multi-legged cable car. Wybe created it to move the soil from the hill called Bishop’s Mountain (Bischofsberg) to the site of the extension of the city embankments in the Old Suburb – the aim was to raise the of the defensive ramparts. To speed up the transport of large amounts of the material and to overcome obstacles in the form of buildings, roads, moats, and the Radunia Canal, Wybe came up with the idea of building a special structure.
The cable car was driven by the power of four horses that turned the treadmill put on the city embankments. On the hillside of Bishop’s Mountain, the soil was put into special baskets, which were transported down to the construction site. Wooden supports were placed between the loading and unloading points, ensuring the stability and proper operation of the entire structure. Workers on top of the supports carried the buckets over their top, ensuring smooth movement.
The spectacular construction made a great impression on the contemporaries. It is mentioned, among others, in the memoirs of an English merchant and traveler Peter Mundy, who lived in Gdańsk for several years. In 1645 he wrote:
An engenious device.
The other print is of an Invention made by Weeb Adam, a citty Ingenier, to convey earth over the citty ditch From Bishoppsberg, a hill very Near the Citty (of which there are Many), to the wall therof to make it higher, itt being aboutt 150 Fathom or 900 Feere over, and hath aboutt 200 basketts and bucketts Fastned and hanguing on hawsers, having only the helpe of 2 horses to draw itt aboutt, with some labourers to Fill empty basketts, et[ts]. The hill is much higher then the wall Soe thatt the waightt of the full basketts helpe themselves over as the empty ones backe againe, going continually round. The same Man is (by some) said to have Made the perpetuall water worcke ar Warsovia in the kings gardein, Mentioned in the afforegoing Folio.
The mechanism also moved the imagination of artists. The poet Georg Greflinger from Regensburg, who dealt with occasional poetry, wrote several lines devoted to the cable car and engineer. In his work, the poet compares the mountain to a mighty opponent, who can only be overcome by a brave man Wyb Adam, a citizen from Harlingen, who can perform such an art. The engineer, however, is the inventor of other wonders. Greflinger advises us not to judge the Master Wybe by the simple clothes he was wearing (maybe the poet meant modest attire of the Mennonite), but by the fruits of his labor. The poet ends his poem in praise of Gdańsk itself, a city famous all over the world. Adam Wybe died in 1653. Some of his duties were taken over by his sons, but they were not as gifted as their father.