[Ok-sus] A better idea for a wheelbarrow

Bob Waldrop bwaldrop at cox.net
Sun Jan 22 19:37:00 CST 2012

As most of us know, the typical wheelbarrow in use these days requires the person pushing the wheelbarrow to bear a good portion of the weight of the load. Our version of the wheelbarrow basically is like a stretcher, only with a wheel instead of someone up front carrying the front end.

As it turns out, the Chinese had a much better idea for a wheelbarrow. It consists of one large central wheel, topped with a framework, with platforms on either side for the load. The person pushing the wheelbarrow thus carries none of the weight, he or she is just pushing and steering. All the weight lays upon the wheel and its axel. Going forward, we are all going to make a new acquaintance with manual labor, and I for one am going to try to build one of these for my work this summer, since I use a wheelbarrow a lot and as I get older, it’s not getting any easier to maneuver it.
Here is a great article on the subject, complete with pictures and contemporaneous accounts from days of yore.
Bob Waldrop, OKC
A snip. . . 
How to downsize a transport network: the Chinese wheelbarrow
For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history. This is especially true in the East, where it became a universal means of transportation for both passengers and goods, even over long distances. 

The Chinese wheelbarrow - which was driven by human labour, beasts of burden and wind power - was of a different design than its European counterpart. By placing a large wheel in the middle of the vehicle instead of a smaller wheel in front, one could easily carry three to six times as much weight than if using a European wheelbarrow.

The one-wheeled vehicle appeared around the time the extensive Ancient Chinese road infrastructure began to disintegrate. Instead of holding on to carts, wagons and wide paved roads, the Chinese turned their focus to a much more easily maintainable network of narrow paths designed for wheelbarrows. The Europeans, faced with similar problems at the time, did not adapt and subsequently lost the option of smooth land transportation for almost one thousand years. 

Transport options over land

Before the arrival of the steam engine, people have always preferred to move cargo over water instead of over land, because it takes much less effort to do so. But whenever this was not possible, there remained essentially three options for transporting goods: carrying them (using aids like a yoke, or none at all), tying them to pack animals (donkeys, mules, horses, camels, goats), or loading them onto a wheeled cart or wagon (which could be pulled by humans or animals).

Carrying stuff was the easiest way to go; there was no need to build roads or vehicles, nor to feed animals. But humans can carry no more than 25 to 40 kg over long distances, which made this a labour-intensive method if many goods had to be transported. Pack animals can take about 50 to 150 kg, but they have to be fed, are slightly more demanding than people in terms of terrain, and they can be stubborn. Pack animals also require one or more people to guide them.

When carrying goods - whether by person or by pack animals - the load is not only moved in the desired direction but it also undergoes an up and down movement with every step. This is a significant waste of energy, especially when transporting heavy goods over long distances. Dragging stuff does not have this drawback, but in that case you have friction to fight. Pulling a wheeled vehicle is therefore the most energy-efficient choice, because the cargo only undergoes a horizontal motion and friction is largely overcome by the wheels. Wheeled carts and wagons, whether powered by animals or people, can take more weight for the same energy input, but this advantage comes at a price; you need to build fairly smooth and level roads, and you need to build a vehicle. If the vehicle is drawn by an animal, the animal needs to be fed.

When all these factors are taken into consideration, the wheelbarrow could be considered the most efficient transport option over land, prior to the Industrial Revolution. It could take a load similar to that of a pack animal, yet it was powered by human labour and not prone to disobedience.

Compared to a two-wheeled cart or a four-wheeled wagon, a wheelbarrow was much cheaper to build because wheel construction was a labour-intensive job. Although the wheelbarrow required a road, a very narrow path (about as wide as the wheel) sufficed, and it could be bumpy. The two handles gave an intimacy of control that made the wheelbarrow very manoeuvrable.

East and West: a very different story

The wheelbarrow tells a very distinct history in both the Western and the Eastern world. Although to this date its origins remain obscure, it is clear that the vehicle played a much larger role in the East than in the West. While in recent years there has surfaced some evidence that the wheelbarrow might have been used on construction sites by the Ancient Greeks at the end of the fifth century BC, there is no mention at all of wheelbarrows in Ancient Rome (although that does not exclude the possibility that they in fact did use them).

The first sound evidence of the wheelbarrow in the Western world only emerged in the early thirteenth century AD. In China, their use is documented extensively from the second century AD onwards - more than a thousand years earlier. It is interesting to note that the wheelbarrow appeared at least 2,000 years later than two-wheeled carts and four-wheeled wagons. 


When the wheelbarrow finally caught on in Europe, it was used for short distance cargo transport only, notably in construction, mining and agriculture. It was not a road vehicle. In the East, however, the wheelbarrow was also applied to medium and long distance travel, carrying both cargo and passengers. This use - which had no Western counterpart - was only possible because of a difference in the design of the Chinese vehicle. The Western wheelbarrow was very ill-adapted to carry heavy weights over longer distances, whereas the Chinese design excelled at it.

On the European wheelbarrow the wheel was (and is) invariably placed at the furthest forward end of the barrow, so that the weight of the burden is equally distributed between the wheel and the man pushing it. In fact, the wheel substitutes for the front man of the handbarrow or stretcher, the carrying tool that was replaced by the wheelbarrow (illustration on the right).

Superior Chinese design

In the characteristic Chinese design a much larger wheel was (and is) placed in the middle of the wheelbarrow, so that it takes the full weight of the burden with the human operator only guiding the vehicle. In fact, in this design the wheel substitutes for a pack animal. In other words, when the load is 100 kg, the operator of a European wheelbarrow carries a load of 50 kg while the operator of a Chinese wheelbarrow carries nothing. He (or she) only has to push or pull, and steer.

The result was an extremely powerful and agile vehicle. In 1176 AD, the Chinese writer Tsêng Min-Hsing noted enthusiastically:

"The device is so efficient that it can take the place of three men; moreover, it is safe and steady when passing along dangerous places (cliff paths, etcetera). Ways which are as winding as the bowels of a sheep will not defeat it."


The large central wheel of a Chinese wheelbarrow takes the full weight of the burden with the human operator only guiding the vehicle


The Chinese wheelbarrow - which was also widely in use in present-day Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos - originally appeared in two basic variants. One was originally termed the "wooden ox" ("mu niu"), which had the shafts projecting in front (so that it was pulled), while the other was termed the "gliding horse" ("liu ma"), which has the shafts projecting behind (so that it was pushed). A combination of both types was also used, being pulled and pushed by two men. From these two basic types, many variations evolved. Later, the Chinese also used western-style wheelbarrows alongside their own design.

(more at the link above.)
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: https://mailman-mail5.webfaction.com/pipermail/ok-sus/attachments/20120122/4a7f5211/attachment.html 

More information about the Ok-sus mailing list