wheelbarrow, uses and history

A wheelbarrow is a small hand-propelled vehicle, usually with just one wheel, designed to be pushed and guided by a single person using two handles at the rear, or wheelbarrow by a sail to push the ancient wheelbarrow by wind. The term “wheelbarrow” is made of two words: “wheel” and “barrow.” “Barrow” is a derivation of the Old English “bearwe” which was a device used for carrying loads.

a typical wheelbarrow
agricultural wheelbarrow

proper uses of wheelbarrow

The wheelbarrow is designed to distribute the weight of its load between the wheel and the operator, so enabling the convenient carriage of heavier and bulkier loads than would be possible were the weight carried entirely by the operator. As such it is a second-class lever.

Traditional Chinese wheelbarrows, however, had a central wheel supporting the whole load. Use of wheelbarrows is common in the construction industry and in gardening. Typical capacity is approximately 100 litres (3.53 cubic feet) of material.

advantages of a wheelbarrow

A two-wheel type is more stable on level ground, while the almost universal one-wheel type has better maneuverability in small spaces, on planks, in water, or when tilted ground would throw the load off balance. The use of one wheel also permits greater control of the deposition of the load upon emptying.

History of wheelbarrow in

China

The one-wheeled Chinese wheelbarrow, from Zhang Zeduan‘s (1085–1145) painting Along the River During Qingming Festival, Song Dynasty.

A metal wheel barrow in Haikou City, Hainan Province, China

The earliest wheelbarrows with archaeological evidence in the form of a one-wheel cart come from second century Han Dynasty Emperor Hui’s tomb murals and brick tomb reliefs. The painted tomb mural of a man pushing a wheelbarrow was found in a tomb at Chengdu, Sichuan province, dated precisely to 118 AD.

The stone carved relief of a man pushing a wheelbarrow was found in the tomb of Shen Fujun in Sichuan province, dated circa 150 AD. And then there is the story of the pious Dong Yuan pushing his father around in a single-wheel lu che barrow, depicted in a mural of the Wu Liang tomb-shrine of Shandong (dated to 147 AD).

However, there are even earlier accounts than this that date back to the 1st century BC and 1st century AD. The 5th century Book of Later Hanstated that the wife of the once poor and youthful imperial censor Bao Xuan helped him push a lu che back to his village during their feeble wedding ceremony, around 30 BC.

Later, during the Red Eyebrows Rebellion (c. 20 AD) against Xin dynasty‘s Wang Mang (45 BC–23 AD), the official Zhao Xi saved his wife from danger by disguising himself and pushing her along in his lu che barrow, past a group of brigand rebels who questioned him, and allowed him to pass after he convinced them that his wife was terribly ill. The first recorded description of a wheelbarrow appears in Liu Xiang‘s work Lives of Famous Immortals. Liu describes the invention of the wheelbarrow by the legendary Chinese mythological figure Ko Yu, who builds a “Wooden ox“.

Nevertheless, the Chinese historical text of the Sanguozhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms), compiled by the ancient historian Chen Shou (233–297 AD), credits the invention of the wheelbarrow to Prime Minister Zhuge Liang (181–234 AD) of Shu Han from 197–234. It was written that in 231 AD, Zhuge Liang developed the vehicle of the wooden ox and used it as a transport for military supplies in a campaign against Cao Wei.

Further annotations of the text by Pei Songzhi (430 AD) described the design in detail as a large single central wheel and axle around which a wooden frame was constructed in representation of an ox. Writing later in the 11th century, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) scholar Gao Cheng wrote that the small wheelbarrow of his day, with shafts pointing forward (so that it was pulled), was the direct descendent of Zhuge Liang’s wooden ox.

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Furthermore, he pointed out that the third century ‘gliding horse’ wheelbarrow featured the simple difference of the shaft pointing backwards (so that it was pushed instead).

Wheelbarrows in China came in two types. The more common type after the third century has a large, centrally mounted wheel. Prior types were universally front-wheeled wheelbarrows.

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The central-wheeled wheelbarrow could generally transport six human passengers at once, and instead of a laborious amount of energy exacted upon the animal or human driver pulling the wheelbarrow, the weight of the burden was distributed equally between the wheel and the puller.

European visitors to China from the 17th century onwards had an appreciation for this, and it was given a considerable amount of attention by a member of the Dutch East India Company, Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, in his writings of 1797 (who accurately described its design and ability to hold large amounts of heavy baggage).

However, the lower carrying surface made the European wheelbarrow clearly more useful for short-haul work. As of the 1960s, traditional wheelbarrows in China were still in wide use.

general history of wheelbarrow

On the occasion of Peter’s first visit to England, the young tsar and his traveling companions found a wheelbarrow in the garden of the house where they lodged; not knowing its purpose, they used it for drunken wheelbarrow races

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The oldest wheelbarrows preserved from Central Europe were found in 2014 and 2017 during archaeological excavations in Ingolstadt, Germany. The felling dates of the trees that make up the wheelbarrow boards could be dendrochronologically dated to 1537 for one wheelbarrow and the 1530s for the other.

Modern types of wheelbarrow

In the 1970s, British inventor James Dyson introduced the Ballbarrow, an injection molded plastic wheelbarrow with a spherical ball on the front end instead of a wheel. Compared to a conventional design, the larger surface area of the ball made the wheelbarrow easier to use in soft soil, and more laterally stable with heavy loads on uneven ground.

The Honda HPE60, an electric power-assisted wheelbarrow, was produced in 1998.

Power assisted wheelbarrows are now widely available from a number of different manufacturers. Powered wheelbarrows are used in a range of applications; the technology has improved to enable them to take much heavier loads, beyond weights that a human could transport alone without assistance.

Motorized wheelbarrows are generally either diesel powered or electric battery powered. Often used in small scale construction applications where access for larger plant machinery might be restricted.

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