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
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
Temple, R., The Genius of China. New
York: Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp.
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.
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