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.

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