Tools for work: How construction technology has evolved over time

The tools you use for contracting work have changed over time. From ancient builders using their feet to measure length and a water bubble to find level ground, technology has shaped the evolution of tools.

Let's take a look at how essential construction tools have changed and how modern technology is moving them into the next generation.

History of the tape measure


Getting an accurate measurement has been key to a successful build since the dawn of man. The first wooden ruler is over 5,000 years old.

Many of the first measuring tools were based on the human body. An inch was measured by the width of your thumb, and a foot - you guessed it - by using your foot. A yard was measured using the length of a man's belt.


The first tape measure was invented in the early 1800s using the wire leftover from hoop skirts. In 1868, a tape measure with spring action was patented.

In the 1940s the tape measure gained popularity in the construction industry. More features were added over time like a belt clip and boxed housing, making it an indispensable tool in every workman's toolbox. 


Digital measuring devices are inching into a product category once thought impossible to breach. With precise measurements and seamless integration into digital tools, devices like Moasure are quickly gaining ground on the traditional tape measure.

ArcSite's drawing and estimation tool integrates directly with the Moasure digital measuring device.

Evolution of graph paper


Ancient builders used papyrus strips to form sheets of paper for drawing site plans, recording measurements, and communicating the scope of work to other laborers.

These sheets of paper were often made in long rolls of papyrus. The earliest known papyrus strips date back to around 2900 B.C.


The first "coordinate paper" to hit the market was patented in 1794 for its use of a rectangular grid. The term graph paper didn't catch on in America for some time. Names like "squared paper" and "grid paper" were more common.

Although it's limited by its scale, graph paper has become the most popular way for builders and designers to draw site plans.


The latest evolution of graph paper comes in the form of an unlimited grid canvas on a tablet like the iPad. Tools like ArcSite allow designers to draw their plans as detailed as they want, with speed and precision.

Adopters of this modern advancement of graph paper praise it for its ease of use, professional style, and ability to store in a digital cloud, making it nearly impossible to damage or misplace.

How writing tools have changed over time


Recording measurements and drawing site plans is an essential part of the building process. Pens date back to ancient Egypt when people used stones and specific plants to make a writing utensil. The first quill pen dates back to the 5th century when writers would use swan feathers.

The quill pen led to new innovations using metal tips and specialized ink in the 1800s.


The ballpoint pen was patented in 1943 by two brothers who fled Nazi Germany to Argentina. By the end of WWII, many companies tried to commercialize the invention with slight tweaks in order to get their own patent.

Bic pens gained popularity in the 1960s with their slogan "Writes first every time." Pens are still one of the few universal tools used worldwide.


When it comes to building, pens have their limitations. As computers, tablets, and phones become more and more essential on the job site, transferring drawings, notes, and estimates from a pen to a digital interface takes time and is often redundant.

The "digital pencil" has roots in the invention of the stylus, but a stylus (like the Apple pencil) integrates directly into digital estimation software like ArcSite saves time and improves accuracy.

History of cameras in construction


Before cameras, pen-and-paper drawings were the only way builders could visualize the scope of work. It took masterful artistry to create realistic images on paper.

Some substances like silver salts, when exposed to sunlight, could recreate a very rough "image," but nothing compared to today's photographs. The first photographic image was taken in 1825, so for the majority of human history, drawings and paintings were the only way to capture a permanent picture. 


Photographs are important for builders to visualize and markup site plans. The first commercial camera was released in 1835. Long exposure times and expensive materials kept the camera out of construction sites for quite some time.

As technology improved and cameras became more practical, companies like Kodak came onto the scene in the early 1900s with 35mm film. Digital cameras gained popularity in the 1990s, paving the way for builders to incorporate images into their work with efficiency.


Today, snapping a picture is easier than ever. Nearly every smartphone and tablet is equipped with a high-quality camera. This allows contractors and builders to quickly take a photograph and integrate it into their site plans without needing to transfer it to another device.

Using ArcSite on iPad, contractors can easily take and add photos to a site plan, add notes, and give more perspective. This helps homeowners, installers, and sub-contractors understand exactly where and what work needs to be done.

How builders got a straight line in different eras


Establishing a precise design has always been key to a quality build, and nothing may be more important in achieving that than getting a straight line. In ancient times, builders would hammer two sticks in the ground and tie a rope around them to create a straight line. 

This technique remains one of the simplest ways to establish a straight line. 


String line is one of the oldest hand tools still widely used today. Builders use string line to create a straight line between two points.

In masonry and other construction industries, the string is often coated in chalk and when snapped onto a surface, creates a temporary line for reference. This tool is commonly called a chalk line.


Laser levels, also known as "line levels" and "line generators," use precision laser technology to project a perfectly straight line. The concept has been around since the early 1970s but wasn't patented until the late 1990s.

Builders often prefer the laser level for its ease of use and efficiency in getting the right line for whatever the job requires.

The evolution of estimation tools

Pen & Paper

When a homeowner requests a quote, an estimator arrives on-site and begins inspecting the area, determining the scope of work, and producing a final price based on their findings.

This process, when using only out-of-date tools, can be extensive and time-consuming. Pen-and-paper contractors often have to leave the job site to complete the estimate – adding up product costs and labor – wasting valuable time getting a proposal in the hands of potential customers. 


Just as technology has influenced the evolution of tape measure, graph paper, pen, camera, and straight-line tools, it has also changed the way contractors deliver their estimates. The traditional pen-and-paper drawings take a long time to draft, and making changes or adjusting prices can be difficult.

With a digital estimation tool like ArcSite, estimates are easy to create and edit, and with all of your prices and products built into the software, calculators also become a thing of the past.

Just like tools of the past, things change, and so should the way your company creates estimates. Request a demo of ArcSite and modernize your contracting business.


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