The fabric structures that we know today are rather modern inventions. There’s a massive amount of mathematics and engineering involved to make them safe and durable. However, many brilliant minds came long before modern fabric structures that gave today’s engineers the foundational knowledge necessary to craft their buildings. Without them, modern architecture simply wouldn’t be where it is today. To celebrate this portion of architectural history, let’s take a look at the history of temporary fabric structures.

Tents vs. Fabric Structures

It’s important to recognize that tents are part of the historical foundation of fabric structures. While they’re not the same thing, fabric structures wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the invention of the tent. However, before we can review their history, we must look at the difference between tents and fabric structures. Generally, tents use hinges to secure the structure, weakening the frame, while fabric structures use tension to support the material. A fabric structure evenly distributes the tension across the fabric membrane, making it stronger and more durable than a traditional tent.

Bedouin Tents

The origins of fabric structures can be traced back to early man during the Ice Age, when shelters consisted of animal skins and sticks. As the inhabitants of the Siberian Steppes were nomads, these shelters were portable, much like modern fabric structures. However, we can attribute the invention of the earliest fabric structure to the nomadic Bedouin tribes throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Bedouin tents served as shelter and shade. They consisted of animal hair tightly stretched over wooden support posts. They were short, but their fabric served as the roof of the structure.

Royal Tents of the 12th Century

Over time, these structures became more and more lavish and used throughout the globe. However, the design varied greatly, as some areas needed more weatherproof structures than others. Still, the designs remained similar. Most of the larger tents at this time had a t-shaped post, with the fabric at the top being taught and the fabric at the bottom being a little looser. The tents remained stable due to the support posts and guy ropes that builders would attach to the ground. Today, we recognize and call this structure a pavilion. However, at this time, these structures were used in nomadic tribes to house soldiers and for royal parties.

Field of the Cloth of Gold

Most notably, tents went from a necessity to an indulgence in Europe during the 1500s. On June 7, 1520, Francois I of France and Henry VIII of England met in Calais to hold a festival that would ease tensions between the two kingdoms. This festival was called the Field of the Cloth of Gold, with music, jousting, and much more entertainment.

Large, extensive, and beautiful tents housed these events and quite literally acted as portable palaces. While many of them, as you may have guessed, were yellowish gold, they also came in vibrant blues, greens, and reds to show off their kingdoms’ wealth. Structurally, they used the same engineering as the smaller pavilions of the 12th century.

The First Circus Tent

Although it wasn’t a circus tent, history recognizes the similar structure and appearance of a tent erected on Westminster Bridge in 1770. It was an incredibly large linen structure that would give rise to circus tents later in the mid-1800s. In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown used the first large canvas tent for his circus. Then, Taplin Cooke brought the design to England in 1838. By 1867, circuses were touring by railway across America, often transporting their tents with them.

Seeing the opportunity these conical structures made, Stromeyer and Co. made a business out of setting up these tents. As a result, they became an incredibly popular tent manufacturer, paving the way for future fabric structures.

The Invention of the Standard Field Hospital

Field tents were used for many years and can be traced back to Queen Isabella of Spain in 1484. She sent medical tents to the field with surgeons, physicians, and attendants for free during the siege of Granada. However, an English Army captain named Godfrey Rhodes created the first standardized field hospital tent in 1858. His design was lightweight and easily portable.

The First Tensile Structure

In 1896, the Russian engineer Vladimir Shukhov developed the earliest known steel fabric structure for the Nizhny Novgorod Fair—an industrial conference and exhibition—of that same year. He was the first to figure out the calculations and mathematics involved in creating tensile structures and fabric membranes when he designed eight tensile and thin-shelled structures for the fair. Most incredibly, the building consisted of a hanging steel lattice.

The 1972 Summer Olympics

German engineer and architect Frei Otto constructed a massive pavilion in Montreal. It covered over 8,000 square meters and featured a large steel mesh web of pre-stressed cable. He suspended the webbing over eight steel masts, which brace cables supported. Using this design, he created the roof for the stadium at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Amazingly, the maximum capacity was 75,000 people, but that didn’t stop crowds from fitting into the stadium at numbers that soared well over 80,000.

Fabric Structures Today

Today, fabric structures are quick and easy to erect at a relatively low cost. Despite their simple design, they’re still incredibly durable, lightweight, and easy to move from one site to another. Much like their predecessors, modern-day fabric structures still find use in the military, as medical tents, and to host large events. Due to the wonders of PVC vinyl, these structures can now be fire retardant and provide comfort with the ability to block UV rays.

Looking back at the history of temporary fabric structures gives us the ability to truly admire and appreciate the intelligence of our ancestors and just how innovative humans are. At Big Top Manufacturing, our industrial fabric structures refine the science used throughout history to create a structure that meets and exceeds expectations. With over 30 years of experience, we’ve seen how far modern science and architecture have come and remain dedicated to providing you with a structure that represents the pinnacle of that science.

The History of Temporary Fabric Structures

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