Do You Know Who Really Invented the Wheelbarrow?

Wheelbarrow. Getty Images, EyeEm

American poet William Carlos Williams praised them in his most famous poem: "so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow," he wrote in 1962. The fact is that whether they have one or two wheels, wheelbarrows changed the world in small ways. They help us carry heavy loads easily and efficiently. Wheelbarrows were used in Ancient China, Greece and Rome. But do you know who really invented them?

From Ancient China to Your Backyard 

According to the history book The Records of the Three Kingdoms, by the ancient historian Chen Shou, the single-wheeled cart today known as a wheelbarrow was invented by the prime minister of Shu Han, Zhuge Liang, in 231 A.D.

Liang called his device a “wooden ox.” The handles of the cart faced forward (so that it was pulled), and it was used to carry men and material in battle.

But the archaeological record bears out devices older than the “wooden ox” in China. (By contrast, the wheelbarrow seems to arrive in Europe sometime between 1170 and 1250 A.D.) Paintings of men using wheelbarrows were found in tombs in Sichuan, China, that dated to 118 A.D.

Eastern vs. Western Wheelbarrows

A notable difference between the wheelbarrow as it was invented and existed in ancient China and the device found today is in the placement of the wheel. The Chinese invention placed the wheel at the center of the device, with a frame built around it. In this way, the weight was more evenly distributed on the cart; the man pulling/pushing the cart had to do considerably less work. Such wheelbarrows could effectively move passengers — up to six men.

The European barrow features a wheel at one end of the cart and necessitates more effort to push. While this would appear to be a strong factor against the European design, the lower position of the load makes it more useful for short trips and both loading and dumping cargo.