I'd guess that just about everyone reading this has seen a wheelbarrow, and many of you have used one.
My daily after-school job on the chicken farm of my youth required the use of a wheelbarrow. Baby chicks were kept in five level battery brooders, each holding 500 chicks and heated by electricity. The chicks walked on wire mesh screens and their droppings were caught on tin trays that slid out for cleaning.
After the chicks got big enough that they no longer need heat, they were transferred to unheated larger cages, similar to the battery brooders, but with only four levels. We used two battery brooders and three of the larger, unheated ones that required daily cleaning. Every afternoon, I removed each tray (two to every level), sat it on edge in a wheelbarrow and scraped it clean with a 3-inch wide hand scraper. When the wheelbarrow was full, it was pushed outside and its contents were shoveled into the manure spreader.
During all these fun activities, I never once wondered who invented the wheelbarrow, and I’ll bet you never have either.
Earliest barrows traced to China
Like many other inventions, the wheelbarrow originated in China, where it was probably first used to move military supplies. Archaeologists have found paintings in Chinese tombs dating to the second century of men using wheelbarrows. These vehicles were used in China well into the 20th century and possibly still are in rural areas.
The Chinese wheelbarrow differs from ours, in that the single wheel was much larger and more centered, with the load-carrying surface built around the wheel instead of behind it. This made it easier for a single operator to carry a much heavier load, as the centered wheel bore more of the weight. Sometimes another person or an animal was hitched to the front of the barrow. Sails were also commonly used to help with heavy loads.
Handbarrows (boxes or platforms with two handles sticking out front and back, allowing two men to carry a heavier load) were used in Europe until someone came up with a wheelbarrow, probably about the turn of the 13th century. Some scholars think a one-wheeled cart of some kind was used in Greece and Rome as early as the 5th century A.D., but there’s scant evidence of that.
Medieval wheelbarrows resembled those still used today with a small wheel at the very front and the two handles sticking out the back. Wheelbarrows were made of wood and in many configurations: with boxes to carry loose materials, racks to carry forage and wood, flat beds to haul freight and cradles to haul barrels. When European settlers came to the New World, they brought along these wheelbarrows and they were used here for several centuries.
Impact of the Erie Canal
A major change in the way the load-carrying box on wheelbarrows was built was developed in New York as a direct result of the Erie Canal, the largest engineering and construction project undertaken in this country at that time.
At the turn of the 19th century, the western parts of New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Ohio and southern Michigan, were being rapidly settled. New York City was desperate to become the major seaport through which western farm products were shipped to the rest of the world. The only way for grain and cattle from the Great Lakes basin to reach New York City was by foot (in the case of animals) or by pack animal, wagon or cart for other goods, a method that was quite expensive. Shipping by water was much cheaper, and there was a fear that those products would end up moving northeast via Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, bypassing New York City and giving Canada the profit.
A canal crossing New York state from the Hudson River in the east to Lake Erie in the west, first proposed in 1807, was initially considered a lunatic’s fantasy. However, DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York City (and later governor of New York) got behind the idea, and in 1817 the people of New York voted to go ahead with the 363-mile canal.
The story of the political maneuvering, construction and materials problems, lack of trained and experienced engineers, contractors and workmen, and the trouble overcoming the elevation difference of more than 550 feet between Lake Erie and the Hudson River, as well as rivers, swamps, millions of trees and long stretches of solid rock would, and has, filled several books. But this story is about wheelbarrows, thousands of which were used in constructing the canal.
Contracts to build short sections of the canal were awarded to landowners along the route. One of those was Jeremiah Brainard (1776-1847), Rome, New York. Fortunately, Brainard’s section was relatively level, so few locks or complicated construction was required. However, tons of mud and muck had to be moved and dumped in other places. The square boxes on wheelbarrows of the day had high sides, requiring the man with the shovel to lift each shovelful high in the air to fill the thing. The high, vertical sides also made it difficult to empty the wheelbarrow.
Brainard puzzled over the problem and finally took some ash wood and fashioned a shallow box with sides and ends that flared outward. The “Brainard Barrow,” as it was called, was easier to load, and when tipped, “the muck slid out instantly.”
The canal commissioners found Brainard’s barrow to be “more durable, easier to unload and lighter” and recommended it for “general adoption.” Brainard’s design cost $5, the same as the old wheelbarrows, and he was soon building enough of them to supply contractors all along the canal while presumably making a lot of money in the process.
The same general shape of Brainard’s barrow is still used by today’s wheelbarrow manufacturers, except the barrows are now made of metal or plastic. So this spring, when you use your wheelbarrow to clean up your yard, pause a moment and think of old Jeremiah Brainard, who had a better idea way back in 1819.
There were two or three other ingenious inventions that came out of the Erie Canal … maybe I’ll tell you about those someday. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email.