Although no one knows when equipment leasing first began, archeological evidence suggests it has been around for at least four millennia. The evidence also closely ties equipment leasing’s origin to early agricultural development. Archeologists uncovered some of the first tangible signs of personal property leasing in the ruins of Ur, an ancient Sumerian city (in ancient Iraq). Clay tablets discovered by archeologists indicate that around 2000 B.C., Sumerian priests leased farm implements, land, water rights, and livestock to farmers.
Apparently, leasing was also used by the Babylonians in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ancient Babylonian kingdoms authorized farmers to lease farm equipment, oxen and land. Archeological finds reveal the importance of leasing to the most prominent Babylonian king, Hammurabi, who codified leasing regulations during his rule (around 1750 B.C.).
Around 450 B.C., just south of Babylon, the wealthy Murashu family started a bank and leasing house that helped Persian farmers acquire land and farm equipment. Their firm became one of the best known financial services providers to Persian farmers and land holders at the time.
In other ancient civilizations, leasing proved viable for acquiring the tools, land, and livestock to support agricultural pursuits. There are indications that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans employed leasing for this purpose.
In addition to its role in advancing agriculture during ancient times, leasing played a significant role in sea transportation and military endeavors. The ancient Phoenicians, known for their prowess and expertise in shipping and trade, employed ship charters that bear close resemblance to the modern lease. Many short-term charters that conveyed the use of ships and their crews resembled the operating leases used today. Some long-term charters were written for periods covering the estimated economic life of the vessels. These contracts often conveyed the use, benefits, and obligations associated with ship ownership. In many cases, these arrangements presented some of the same negotiating issues that face modern day lessees and lease providers.
Several important military campaigns illustrate the early military uses of equipment leasing. For example, the Norwegians and Normans used forms of lease financing to secure the ships, equipment and crews necessary to launched their invasion of England in 1066 A.D. During a later period, knights leased their armor for battle. In 1248, Bonfils Manganella of Gaeta leased a suit of armor used during the Seventh Crusade, paying a rental that was close to 25% of the armor’s original value.
For centuries, personal property leasing was not recognized in England under their common law. As a result of the rising popularity of equipment leasing, personal property leasing regulations were included in the Statute of Wales of 1284. Over time, a few Englishmen began to use leasing as a means to secretly acquire property — with the intent of defrauding creditors. At the time, many creditors based their credit decisions on the value of property in the borrowers’ possession. In 1571, England passed an act that prohibited such fraudulent property transfers while preserving the ability to use leasing for legitimate purposes and for reasonable consideration.
By the early 1800s, both the amount and variety of equipment being leased in the United Kingdom had increased. The expansion of agriculture, manufacturing and transportation led to more widespread use of this form of financing. In particular, the expansion of railroads accelerated equipment leasing’s growth. Many early railroad companies struggled financially to construct their tracks, relying on tolls for track use to generate income. This development presented an opportunity for enterprising entrepreneurs to separately acquire and lease railcars to the rail companies and independent shippers.
Equipment leasing continued to play an important role in England and other parts of Europe as the agricultural, manufacturing and transportation industries expanded. It also began to take root in the U.S. as these same industries grew. Although the first equipment leasing transactions in the U.S. involved horses, buggies, and wagons, leasing also gained popularity with the expansion of U.S. railroads. As the rail companies expanded and equipment leasing began to branch out into the manufacturing segments, the U.S. started its transition into the modern era of leasing.