The Invention of the Wheelbarrow

Wheelbarrow in action: A wounded British medical orderly is carted off the field at the Siege of Tsingtao (Qingdao) in World War I, November, 1914. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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 beneath and long handles for pushing or pulling.  Voila!  The wheelbarrow does most of the work for you.  But who first came up with this brilliant idea?  Where was the wheelbarrow invented?

Not too surprisingly, 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 exact date and the actual inventor's name both seem to be lost to history, but it seems likely that people in China have been using wheelbarrows for around 2,000 years.

According to legend, the prime minister of the Shu Han Dynasty in the Three Kingdoms Period, a man named Zhuge Liang, invented the 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 to transport 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."  Using the wooden ox, a single soldier could easily carry enough food to feed four men for the entire month.

  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.

This legend is very tidy and satisfying, but probably untrue.  Archaeological evidence suggests that Chinese people were using the wheelbarrow more than a century before Zhuge Liang's supposed invention of the device in 231 CE.

  For example, a wall painting in a tomb near Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, shows a man using a wheelbarrow - and that painting was made in 118 CE.   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.

It seems possible, then, that the wheelbarrow was invented in the second century in Sichuan Province.  As it happens, the Shu Han Dynasty was based in what is now Sichuan and Chongqing Provinces.  The Cao Wei kingdom encompassed northern China, Manchuria and parts of what is now North Korea, and had its capital at Luoyang in present-day Henan Province.  Conceivably, the people of Wei were not yet aware of the wheelbarrow and its possible military applications in 231 CE. 

Thus, the legend could be half-correct.  Zhuge Liang probably did not actually invent the wheelbarrow.  Some clever farmer likely had the idea first.  But the Shu prime minister and general may well have been the first to use the technology in battle - and may have tried to keep it a secret from the Wei, who had not yet discovered the ease and convenience of the wooden ox.

Since that time, wheelbarrows have been used for 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.  As the photo above shows, wheelbarrows were still being used to carry casualties of war into the 20th century.

In fact, the wheelbarrow was such a good idea that it was invented again, apparently independently, in medieval Europe.  This appears to have happened sometime in the late 12th century.  Unlike Chinese wheelbarrows, which usually had the wheel under the middle of the barrow, European wheelbarrows generally had the wheel or wheels at the front.