Wheelbarrows have been around for ever haven’t they? But who invented the one wheeled labour-saving contraption? A Roman road builder? A clever mediaeval gardener? A wily Victorian entrepreneur? You might guess at any of them but you’d be wrong.
The wheelbarrow doesn’t appear in the west until the Middle Ages and in fact the earliest evidence suggests that it was first invented by the Chinese nearly 2000 years ago, with the earliest image coming from a carved brick in a tomb dated to 118AD.
But tradition in China usually gives the credit to a Chinese politician in 231 A.D, and he didn’t design it as a useful piece of labour-saving garden equipment, but a weapon of war!
Zhuge Liang [sometimes Chu Ko Liang] was Chief Minister of Shu, one of the warring states that made up China in the third century. In 231 Shu was waging war against one of its rivals, and he had the problem of how to supply his troops in extremely difficult and muddy conditions, when there was also a severe labour shortage. Zhuge Liang (or one of his engineers of course) came up with a prototype wheelbarrow, which had a large, narrow, centrally-placed wheel which could cope with moving heavy loads over soft or boggy ground. And, as he is supposed to have said, unlike oxen or humans it never got tired or needed feeding.
Later Chinese military strategists used wheelbarrows as a rapidly assembled and highly manoeuvrable ‘mobile fort’, deploying them around in a circle as a barricade. They were also developed into attack vehicles, with weaponry mounted on them.
In China the wheelbarrow then developed as a road vehicle, where large loads or even passengers could be taken long distances without major effort. This use – which had no real Western counterpart – was only possible because of a difference in the design of the Chinese vehicle. The large wheel in the middle of the wheelbarrow takes the full weight of the load with the user merely steering it. And it could even be modified and made more efficient by adding sails!
The western wheelbarrow seems to have developed in a completely different way, and much later. Its forerunner was probably the handbarrow or litter, which required two people to use. The wheel effectively becomes a substitute for one of the carriers. But because the wheel is at the front it means the weight of the load, although it is split equally between the wheel and the person pushing it, can still often make wheelbarrowing hard work, in particular for carrying heavy weights over long distances.
Nevertheless it was a great improvement, and the advantages of the wheelbarrow as a beast of burden in the garden were obviously quickly realised. It soon appeared on every list of essential garden tools. The earliest I can find is the one written by Alexander Neckam, Abbot of Cirencester in 1190.[also see post Sept 2014]
For a basic piece of equipment you wouldn’t think that there could be much variation in design – the most obvious is the length of the handles, as can be seen in these two lovely miniatures from the margins of mediaeval manuscripts.
In fact there having been a whole range of other styles and variations….drop down sides, front stop bars, removable holders, and even ones designed especially for women. And who better to list many of them [albeit rather verbosely] but John Claudius Loudon in his comprehensive Encyclopedia of Gardening.
Under his category of “machines of Labour,” there is, as you might expect, “the common Garden-wheelbarrow” which is “a box, open at top, placed onto levers, terminating in a wheel axle at one end, and into handles the other. They are commonly made of wood, the levers of ash or elm, and the sides and bottom of any softwood. The wheel is either wholly cast iron or all wood, shod with iron.”
You might be slightly surprised, however, to discover that ” excellent garden-wheelbarrows are now made of wrought-iron. ” In a later book he admits, however, that not only are these iron barrows “too heavy for wheeling anything other than littery dung or other light matters” but ” they are far from being so durable as a wooden barrow when [it]is well painted.” [ The Suburban Horticulturist, 1842]
But that’s just the start of it. There is “the separating barrow”. This is, “in appearance, the same as the above that the body being kept in its place by two iron bolts at opposite angles of the bottom, may be lifted off by two men, and thus tan, dung, and other articles are readily carried into hot-houses where the wheel and leavers could not be pushed along.”
This of course must not be confused with the “new ground at work barrow” which “differs from the first in having the sides and back very low, and the front of the same height. It is made much stronger, and is used chiefly for wheeling Earth, clay, or gravel, in extensive excavations or removals of these materials.”
And don’t forget ….the “haulm-barrow” which is an “open box or case of wicker or other work placed on or suspended from a pair of handles, with or without a wheel, and is useful for carrying litter, leaves, haulm, spray, prunings of hedges, etc.”
Or…. the flower-pot barrow with its “flat surface and wheel, on which plants, pots, will leaves are placed either directly, or when small in one or more shallow baskets.”
Nor must this be mistaken for the hand-barrow which is “a frame of wood carried by two levers, which form four handles, and is used in gardening, for removing large pots and tubs of trees in blossom or bearing fruit, and which wheeling might shake and otherwise injure.”
Or…. ” the water-Barrow” which , “instead of a box contains a barrel, top, or system in which fluid menu or mere water is conveyed to different parts of the garden.”
Or…its advanced counterpart ….. the “barrow watering-engine”. This is “a portable forcing-pump so arranged as to throw the water 40 or 50 feet distance and either in the form of a spout or a fine shower.”
Or its variant…sadly not illustrated, the ‘carriage water-barrel’ ….
And they’re just the ones from the 1827 edition. By 1838 the Encyclopaedia of Gardening has another innovation: ‘the portable wheelbarrow-ladder’. This perhaps unsurprisingly, “combines a wheelbarrow and a ladder.” And in typical Loudon style he goes on to explain that: “Half the ladder (a) may either remain on the Barrow frame (B) where it will serve, by its pressure, to keep down any light bulky matters such as pea haulms; or it may be removed altogether by withdrawing the bolt (see C). A man standing on the third step, and holding with one hand by what forms the tram of the Barrow, may easily gather fruit or flowers at the height of 10 or 12 feet from the ground.”
There are more kinds still in his more agricultural texts but enough is enough I suspect. Even a wheelbarrow afficianado can have too much of a good thing!
But at what point does something cease to be a wheelbarrow?
What happens if it has an extra wheel?
Or 2 extra?
Or even 3 extra?
Or if one gets rid of the wheel entirely….
as James Dyson did in the 1970s when he introduced the ballbarrow, an injection moulded plastic barrow with a spherical ball on the front instead of a conventional wheel.
Maybe one could go another stage further as Honda did, in 1998 when they created an electric power assisted wheelbarrow…
And there are plenty of other ideas which didn’t quite make the production line like this one…
or this fireproof wheelbarrow…
And the wheelbarrow seems to have inspired artists [well lets not get too carried away by romantic notions] more prosaically it does feature in a lot of artworks, as can be seen from these images….
And while you might think that a wheelbarrow only has one or two obvious uses….there are others….
And if all this has left you desperate to see even more trivia and pictures of wheeelbarrows then check out the …yes you’ve guessed … the wheelbarrow blog at….
And just before I finish…. a word of warning to check your insurance to see if you’re covered for dangerous sports before you next use your wheelbarrow….