The Invention of the Wheelbarrow

A vintage wooden wheelbarrow

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Wheelbarrows are human-powered carts with one wheel to assist in carrying all kinds of burdens, from harvested crops to mine tailings, and pottery to building materials. Sickly, wounded, or elderly people could be carried to the doctor before the advent of the ambulance.

It's one of those ideas that seems so self-evident, once you have seen it in action. Rather than carrying heavy loads on your back or burdening a pack animal with them, you can put them into a tub or basket that has a wheel and long handles for pushing or pulling. The wheelbarrow does most of the work for you. But who first came up with this brilliant idea? Where was the wheelbarrow invented?

The First Wheelbarrow

The first wheelbarrows seem to have been created in China—along with the first gunpowder, paper, seismoscopes, paper currency, magnetic compasses, crossbows, and many other key inventions.

The earliest evidence of Chinese wheelbarrows is found in illustrations dated around 100 CE, during the Han dynasty. These wheelbarrows had a single wheel at the front of the load, and the operator holding the handles carried about half the weight. A wall painting in a tomb near Chengdu, in Sichuan Province and dated to 118 CE, shows a man using a wheelbarrow. Another tomb, also in Sichuan Province, includes a depiction of a wheelbarrow in its carved wall reliefs; that example dates back to the year 147 CE.

Wheel Placement Innovation

According to the "Records of the Three Kingdoms," written by Chinese scholar Chen Shou in the third century CE, the prime minister of the Shu Han Dynasty in the Three Kingdoms Period—a man named Zhuge Liang—invented a new form of wheelbarrow in 231 CE as a form of military technology. At the time, Shu Han was embroiled in a war with Cao Wei, another of the three kingdoms for which the era is named.

Zhuge Liang needed an efficient way for a single person to transport enormous quantities of food and munitions to the front lines, so he came up with the idea of making a "wooden ox" with a single wheel. Another traditional nickname for this simple handcart is the "gliding horse." This vehicle had a centrally mounted wheel, with loads carried pannier-fashion on either side or on the top. The operator propelled and guided the wagon, but all of the weight was carried by the wheel. Using the wooden ox, a single soldier could easily carry enough food to feed four men for the entire month—or the four men themselves. As a result, the Shu Han tried to keep the technology a secret—they did not want to lose their advantage over the Cao Wei.

The Greek Contender

There is a tiny bit of evidence that the Greeks may have had a single-wheeled cart as early as the fifth century BCE. A builder's inventory from the Greek site of Eleusis contains a list of tools and equipment, listing the hypteria (upper parts) of a tetrakyklos (four-wheeled vehicle) and one for a monokyklos (one-wheeled vehicle). But that's it: no description beyond the name, and no other reference to such a vehicle is seen in any other Greek or Roman text.

Roman agriculture and architecture processes are well-documented: builder's inventories in particular were commonly preserved. The Romans depended on four-wheeled carts drawn by oxen, pack animals, or on humans, who carried loads in containers in their hands or suspended from their shoulders. No (single-wheeled) wheelbarrows.

Recurrence in Medieval Europe

The earliest consistent and continued use of wheelbarrows in Europe begins in the 12th century CE with an adaptation of the cenovectorium. The cenovectorium (Latin for "muck carrier") was originally a cart with handles at both ends and carried by two individuals. The earliest evidence that a wheel replaced one of the ends in Europe is from a tale written in about 1172 by William of Canterbury in his "Miracles of St. Thomas a Becket." The story involves a man using a one-wheeled cenovectorium to push his paralyzed daughter to see St. Thomas at Canterbury.

Where did that idea (finally) come from? British historian M.J.T. Lewis suggests that the Crusaders might have run across tales of one-wheeled vehicles while in the Middle East, perhaps as stories from Arab sailors who had visited China. Certainly, the Middle East was a huge international trade market at the time. But it seems more likely to have been another suggestion of Lewis': an ad hoc invention, in the same way many other vehicles were invented since the 3500 BCE invention of the axle. Hand carts with two wheels operated by one person (essentially a two-wheeled wheelbarrow), carts with two wheels pulled by an animal, four-wheeled horse- or oxen-drawn wagons, two-wheeled people-drawn rickshaws: all of these and many others were used off and on throughout history to carry goods and people.

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