The first recorded use of a helical pile was in 1836 by a blind Brick-maker and Civil Engineer named Alexander Mitchell. Mitchell was born in Ireland on April 13, 1780, and attended Belfast Academy. He lost his sight gradually from age 6 to age 21. Being blind limited Mitchell’s career options, so he took up brick making during the day and studied mechanics, mathematics, science, and building construction in his leisure time.
One of the problems that puzzled Mitchell was how to better found marine structures on weak soils, such as sand reefs, mudflats, and river estuary banks. At the age of 52 Mitchell devised a solution to this problem, the helical pile.
In 1833, Mitchell patented his invention in London. Mitchell called the device a “screw pile” and its first uses were for ship moorings. The pile was turned into the ground by human and animal power using a large wood handle wheel called a capstan. Screw piles on the order of 6
m long with 127-mm diameter shafts required as many as 30 men to work the capstan. Horses and donkeys were sometimes employed as well as water jets.
In 1838, Mitchell used screw piles for the foundation of the Maplin Sands Lighthouse on a
very unstable bank near the entrance of the river Thames in England. The foundation consisted of nine wrought-iron screw piles arranged in the form of an octagon with one screw pile in the centre. Nine piles were installed to a depth of 6.7 m by human power in nine consecutive days.
In 1853, Eugenius Birch started using Mitchell’s screw pile technology to support seaside piers throughout England. The first of these was the Margate Pier. The piers themselves supported the
weight of pedestrians, carts, buildings, and ancillary structures. The foundations had to support tidal forces, wind loads, and occasional ice flows. Screw piles also were used to support Blankenberg Pier in Belgium in 1895.
During the expansion of the British Empire, screw piles were used to support new bridges in many countries on many continents.
Technical articles were published in ‘The Engineering and Building Record’ in 1890 and in ‘Engineering News’ in 1892 regarding bridges supported on screw piles. As a result of British expansion, screw piles were soon being applied around the World.
From about 1900 to 1950, the use of helical piles declined. During this time, there were major developments in mechanical pile-driving and drilling equipment. However, with the development of modern hydraulic torque motors, advances in manufacturing, and new galvanising techniques, the modern helical pile evolved primarily for anchor applications until around 1980 when engineer Stan Rupiper designed the first compression application in the U.S. using modern helical piles (Rupiper, 2000).