Our Gunpowder And Tea Came From China, Why Didn’t We Copy Their Wheelbarrows?

My dad's low-loader barrow. You would not believe how useful it is.
My dad’s low-loader barrow. You would not believe how useful it is.

Everyone must have a few things that are emotive of their childhood, perhaps a sight, a sound, or a smell. For me, growing up as I did on a small British organic farm in the 1970s, my emotive things are the smell of rain hitting parched earth, or of the slightly sulphurous diesel exhaust from a clapped-out Fordson Major tractor. And wheelbarrows, strangely. My dad, you see, is both a blacksmith by trade and an inveterate experimenter in the field of handcarts and barrows. A small self-sufficient farm generates a huge range of different loads that need carrying around, and he fashioned a variety of inventive contraptions for the purpose. Of most use are his oversized builder’s barrows with a full-size van wheel at the front and able to cross the bumpiest of ground, but other highlights included the low-loading barrow for shifting the heaviest one-piece loads, or the two-wheeler for very long objects.

As you might expect then, I have an eye for a barrow, as I’ve pushed a few in my time. So when I read about how traditional Chinese barrows are constructed, they caught my attention and I had to ask: why don’t we do it that way?

A typical wheelbarrow, as a European or American might know it. Hyena (Public domain).
A typical wheelbarrow, as a European or American might know it. Hyena (Public domain).

If you look at a typical wheelbarrow as we might know them on building sites in Europe or America, you’ll see a single wheel at the front which acts as the fulcrum of a lever that carries the box or hopper that forms the load space of the barrow, and extends backwards to form the handles. The operator lifts the handles and gains the advantage of the lever in that they handle a lower force than they would if they were lifting the load in its entirety. The work involved is reduced, more stuff is shifted for less fatigue on the user, everyone goes home happy.

Sail-assisted centre-wheel Chinese wheelbarrows. (Public domain)
Sail-assisted centre-wheel Chinese wheelbarrows. (Public domain)

Until, that is, you consider the way the Chinese made their wheelbarrows. They took a single, much larger wheel, and put it in the centre of the load, sometimes such that the load hung down either side, at axle level. There is the disadvantage in this design in that the operator has more to do keeping the load balanced, but on the other hand there is the huge advantage that all the weight of the load lands on the wheel. The operator takes none of the load, meaning that a greater load can be carried, and that all of their energy can be put into moving the load rather than carrying it. While a wheel-at-the-front barrow can be used to move loads a short distance round a building site, the Chinese barrows were used as long distance light transport. While Europeans struggled with horse-drawn vehicles to Roman dimensions on unmade mediaeval roads, on the other side of the world there were single-file trains of wheelbarrows providing transport, sometimes even equipped with sails to catch a helping hand from the wind. Our Chinese readers are no doubt nodding at this point, and mumbling something about moveable type.

Of course, nobody is suggesting that a return to wheelbarrows as a main form of transport makes any sense in the 21st century. But there are still niches in which a more efficient hand-operated barrow could be of use. I would be first to say that a small organic farm could use one, but a more likely application might be local city deliveries. It would be interesting to apply modern technology to the problem of keeping one balanced, perhaps with an accelerometer and microcontroller governing a flywheel. If my dad had been born fifty years later he’d probably be building one now and posting it on hackaday.io, but sadly an Arduino is probably beyond him these days. That is not however something that should stop any of you from giving it a go if this piece has piqued your interest.

It is not often that a utilitarian tool such as a wheelbarrow does not evolve into its most efficient form over time. It is difficult to believe that when travellers brought back other tales from China to Europe they had not also seen the centre-wheel barrows, so there must have been some other reason behind it that only a historian could shed some light on. Perhaps they had simply also mastered the art of maintaining a road, while our muddy tracks sucked any wheeled vehicle into their glutinous depths.

78 thoughts on “Our Gunpowder And Tea Came From China, Why Didn’t We Copy Their Wheelbarrows?

    1. One of my father’s friends, a fake British guy, would repeat for all who would listen: ” why did the British invent the wheelbarrow?… to teach the Irish to walk upright” …

  1. Seems to be two different purposes. The pictured Chinese wheelbarrow seem to be for pushing over roads for long distances. On a road stabilization is probably less an issue then fatigue, particularly when you can carefully balance the load. Where in a garden wheelbarrow you are pushing over mounds and rough terrain and want to load and unload quickly. A situation where you are much more concerned about stabilization.

    But yes, that low-loader looks awesome.

    1. The western wheelbarrow is best suited to building sites where stability walking a plank between two scaffolds can make the difference between life and death. So, carrying the weight on the operator could be said to be a feature, not a bug.

    1. The Romans did not use any form of wheel barrow, watch the BBC show “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day” and you will learn this, there was a big fight because the modern tradies hated not being able to use the one they were familiar with.

      1. I loved that show! Especially when the tradies put some graffiti on a wall (about the barrows IIRC), and the project historian was more upset that it was done in english rather than latin……..

  2. A huge benefit of the traditional wheelbarrow used here in the United States is that it can be ‘dumped’ (lift handles over head making wheelbarrow almost vertical) to empty loads such as dirt or gravel or cement.

          1. And exactly how will this wheeless wheel barrow get a puncture, or at least an under inflated tyre (tire)?
            because that seems to be a feature on all the wheel barrows I’ve pushed.

  3. please explain how you would use a one of those Chinese wheelbarrows for a wet load? or dry loose loads?

    I appreciate the history lesson as those are cool facts but it is important to note that there is a tool for each job and on short trips with a loose (or wet load) the Chinese wheelbarrow would be less than optimal. Not having to carry some of the weight would encourage people to move faster with unstable loads which would end with many more spills.

    “I would be first to say that a small organic farm could use one, but a more likely application might be local city deliveries.”

    and you probably would be the last, for the small organic farms, please see my comment above regarding loose loads. As for local city delivery you would run into the problem that not supporting the load would encourage people to move much faster than they would be able to react to changes in terrain or direction (think random person walking into the path of traffic due to looking on their phones), thus leading to many spills or tipped loads. For local city deliveries, the bicycle messenger is a much more efficient method, cargo bikes can take larger parcels and more weight as well as being already taken into consideration given the rules of the road and really is the evolution of the wheelbarrow that you state hasn’t happened:

    “It is not often that a utilitarian tool such as a wheelbarrow does not evolve into its most efficient form over time.”

    https://www.google.ca/search?q=Two-Wheel+Garden+Cart&tbm=isch&gws_rd=cr&ei=zChAWbfnFYzjjwSFxIL4Ag#tbm=isch&q=cargo+bicycle

  4. The “eastern” type is more practical for long distance transport because the load is tightly attached to it. So, lifting it after a fall does not involve picking up the load piece by piece. Tight binding of the load, however, is totally impractical for short distance transport. It’s easier to put some more effort and get the stability instead.

  5. Ever wondered why the front of western wheelbarrows is angled? Because you can dump the load over the front edge, without falling over the whole thing! Try this with the Chinese version. You’re comparing apples and oranges: our wheelbarrow is for construction purposes. Short ways, stable loading and unloading, low center of gravity. The Chinese version is for long distance road transport of goods that are fixed to the cart. In Europe this application was handled through donkey, ox or horse carriages with to wheels. Maybe the Chinese had already enough cheap labor back then.
    How about HAD stops producing content like an ad mill?

    1. THIS!!! I would rather have one or two well curated articles a day rather than the constant spaming of questionable content. Please don’t turn HAD into /., Things are getting really bad over there.

    2. As it happens, I wrote this article because the technology and topic interests me. Fair enough, it doesn’t interest you. I think you’ll agree though, an esoteric article on mediaeval Chinese wheelbarrows is hardly mass market clickbait.

      1. This is most certainly not turning into /. I stopped going there a few years ago and even the sites that rose when it fell (slashdot Beta, anyone?) are not very good. HAD fills that void for me and keeps me interested. I rather enjoyed the article and the history. A study in technological history is always welcome!

      2. My suggestion would be writing about a topic because you’re familiar with it, not because you’re interested. Ever heard of the Dunning Kruger Effect? A little knowledge is the worst knowledge.

        1. It is an article about wheelbarrows ffs! What do you want? An article written by the de facto world authority on wheelbarrow technology and history peer reviewed by the wheelbarrow science community?

          By the way, I want that low-loader!

      1. to add in the uk metro and mini stub axles and brake assemblies were the go-to standard for most bespoke big wheeled things, like trailers and so on, plentifull cheap and practically free at breakers

      2. In the USA the popular choice was front stub spindles from cars where the spindle bolted to the steering knuckle via a flange. One could build a simple wooden box then attach a pair of spindles to the sides with bolts. Put the brake drums and bearings back on, then the wheel. If you got extra ambitious or wanted to save a bit of weight, cut the rivets holding the brake drum to the hub.

        Then some company figured out how to make the knuckles strong enough so the spindle could be pressed in (some time in the 1960’s) so that easy method of building a farm wagon went away, except for robbing parts from older cars.

  6. It’s important to understand the difference in origin; they were invented to solve different problems, and neither wheelbarrow is a one-for-one substitute for the other.

    The European wheelbarrow is derived from the two-man handbarrow; replacing one set of handles with a wheel allowed one man to do the work of two. But of course it’s still good for exactly the same things a handbarrow is good for, and served as a short-distance complement to the horse- or ox-drawn vehicles for long-distance transport. (The wheelbarrow would evolve significantly — the wheel was tucked in closer (so the wheel bears more weight, and the operator less), and the front slope added to the body to allow dumping/pouring — great for concrete work! But at the time of Marco Polo, it was still pretty close to a handbarrow with a wheel.)

    The Chinese wheelbarrow, on the other hand, seems to have originated as a replacement for a pack ox. Again, the wheel replaced half the “crew” (one man instead of one man leading one ox), and filled the same role in transportation. I don’t know enough about China to be sure why pack animals were being used (instead of carts/wagons) for long-distance transport in the first place; I can only assume there must have been more need to operate in mountainous terrain where wide roads are impractical to build. (Or maybe the Chinese just couldn’t be bothered to make wide roads like the Romans did, even in land where it would be practical; could be a chicken-or-egg thing where they use pack animals, not wagons, because the roads are narrow, and they don’t widen the roads because they use pack animals, not wagons… like I said, I really don’t know enough to say.)

    So the reason the Chinese wheelbarrow didn’t take off in Europe was because it didn’t really fit into the current European transport system. It couldn’t replace hand/wheelbarrows, as it was too much trouble to load and unload; it couldn’t compete with wagons for long-range transport. Not that there wouldn’t be some utility right in the middle, just not enough to make it successful.

    To analogize, consider that person A has a small phone, a 7″ tablet, and a laptop, while person B has a 5″ phablet, a 10″ tablet with keyboard case, and a desktop. A looks at a phablet and thinks “my phone does fine for most stuff, and if I want a larger screen for e.g. comics, my 7″ tablet is right there in my hand bag”; B looks at a laptop and says “for the few things I can’t do just as well on a fullsize tablet, my desktop is fine.” And so on; while each of those devices is useful enough (after all, they’re each happy with 3 of them), neither one finds the “intermediate” (from their perspective) steps worth buying.

  7. I’d like to chime in and add that a western wheelbarrow can be designed to balance the load. My Grandfather got a very excellent wheelbarrow from an iron foundry he worked at. It was narrower than most, with a slightly higher and longer nose. If you filled it most of the way up with water or cement, the load shifted towards the front so that about 80% of the weight was on the front tire. Wish I had a picture to post. It was absolutely amazing how much of a load you could carry in that thing.

  8. Different strokes. I find that western style wheelbarrows carry the load so high above the axle that they are absurdly unstable. If the nose plate or one of the rear legs hit the ground, the entire works are likely to tumble; and if the tire is flat, it’s easier just to carry the cargo in your arms. I would *vastly* prefer a version with two front wheels. Or maybe some kind of low-boy design, like the author’s father’s setup, perhaps with a cargo bin that could be dumped to the side.

    1. Instability also leads to maneuverability often useful in landscaping or navigating a construction site. Cheap wheel barrows are worse than no wheel barrow in some respects. Double wheel versions offer the same disadvantage of an under inflated wheel in addition to forcing a wider turning radius. If you can’t inflate the wheel to be rock hard it’s not worth it for any heavy load, good for bulky loads like mulch or leaves but unacceptable for mortar, lumber or soil.
      As others have pointed out the load needs to be over the wheel for optimum use, simple physics of a 2nd class lever or an afternoon moving soil will reveal this but still many people load them incorrectly.

  9. I’m highly suspicious of any “why don’t people…?” impulses. Typically in 99.9999% of cases it turns out there are exceedingly good reasons “why not”, one can only hope one finds them out before committing irreversibly to something very foolish.

  10. Bottom line on all inventions is we choose those things we find most useful. That’s why the wheelbarrows we chose instead were those we found most useful for the task at hand. Here in the states we have a number of different varieties. Even some motor driven. We just choose the best tool for the Job.

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