Who Invented the Wheelbarrow?

Have you ever wondered who invented the wheelbarrow and how it evolved into the modern one we have today?

| January 2016

  • Wheelbarrow of American design, 1939.
    Courtesy Library of Congress
  • This 1885 painting by Canadian artist Paul Peel depicts a peasant woman pausing in her mowing to sharpen her scythe and admire her infant son sitting atop a hay-laden wheelbarrow.
    Photo courtesy Sam Moore
  • A European wheelbarrow from the 16th century.
    Photo courtesy Sam Moore
  • This drawing of levee repair in New Orleans during the Civil War shows Brainard barrows in use.
    Photo courtesy Sam Moore
  • An obviously posed circa-1910 photograph of two Chinese men being hauled on a wheelbarrow by a third man.
    Photo courtesy Sam Moore
  • An assortment of 18th century European barrows: A, B and F are wheelbarrows, while D and E are two-man handbarrows and C appears to be for heavier loads and requires four men.
    Photo courtesy Sam Moore

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.


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