Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 377:
WHEELBARROW

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 377.

Today, let's finish inventing the wheelbarrow. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Did you ever wonder about the history of the wheelbarrow? Well, don't worry, neither did I. Then I found that it, like any technology in the commonplace, has a story to tell. The West was very slow to invent the wheelbarrow. We find no evidence before AD 1220. Then one turns up in the oddest place. Medieval stained glass was used to tell the common folk about things celestial. That glass had to speak in the language of a hard familiar world. So the earliest known European wheelbarrow gleams down from a stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral.

But the Chinese have had wheelbarrows for millenia. They celebrate a half-mythical inventor named Ko Yu. We don't know when he lived, but we first read about him in the first century BC. Since then, the Chinese have shaped wheelbarrows in enormous variety. They've used them for every kind of task.

It might help to consider just what a wheelbarrow is. It combines the advantages of both the wheel and the lever. The load is centered just behind a single wheel. That way, you have to lift only a small part of the load. The two handles give an intimacy of control you don't have with a four-wheeled cart. If you don't have a draft animal, it's a cheap and effective substitute. If you ever had to use a wheelbarrow, you know it's easy with the load in the right place. It can be backbreaking when the load's too far behind the wheel.

Chinese armies made the first use of the wheelbarrow. It gave them such an advantage in moving goods that it was kept secret. Early Chinese writings talk about wheelbarrows in code. "Ko Yu," one ancient text tells us, "built a wooden goat and rode away into the mountains on it." They called a wheelbarrow with handles in front a "wooden ox." One with handles in back was a "gliding horse."

Long ago, the Chinese invented wheelbarrows with sails. That was no idle experiment. Sail-driven wheelbarrows became a well-developed and widespread technology. And the sails were perfect miniatures of the ones used on a junk.

And we, with all our vaunted technology, have yet to build wheelbarrows with the grace, balance, variety, and features of those in China. The ones in our hardware stores are clunkers by comparison. We never have caught up with the Chinese in this simple-looking, but very sophisticated, technology.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Temple, R., The Genius of China. New York: Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 84-86, 195-196.

I did this episode early in 1990 on the basis of the Temple source above. Much later, Michael Walker wrote to point out Graeco-Roman uses of the wheelbarrow three centuries before these Chinese wheelbarrows. His sources included 1994 paper, M. J. T. Lewis, The Origins of the Wheelbarrow. Technology and Culture, Vol. 35, No. 3. (Jul., 1994), pp. 453-475. In retrospect that's hardly surprising. Any machine so useful had to be thought of at different times and in different places, although Chinese wheelbarrows of two millenia ago were certainly highly articulated and widely used.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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