One-Wheel Wonders: Wheelbarrow History

For a playful diversion from mundane yard work, my dad would sometimes offer us kids a wheelbarrow ride during one of his "no-load" return trips for a refill of sand, twigs or other cargo. We considered these rides to be our father's inventive use for the heavy-duty hauling tool – and he might have thought the same.

But it turns out that our 20th-century notion of entertainment had been a vital form of transportation in China (delivering people as well as produce) for hundreds of years.

An early version of the wheelbarrow, called a lu che (photo above), was developed during China's Three Kingdoms Period (220 through 280 A.D.), though the contraption likely had ancient predecessors. Its official origin is a matter of speculation, based on examples found in artwork and writings. The earliest known clue to European use of the wheelbarrow — a representation in a 13th-century French cathedral window — dates more than a thousand years after the creation of the lu che.

One reason for the delay may have to do with the wheelbarrow's role in China's warfare. Because of the lu che's value in transporting supplies and soldiers, the device was somewhat of a military secret. The wheelbarrow is a boon to any civilization without paved roads, as it requires only a narrow path. It enabled efficient transport and communication, even where roads were lacking. And a cavalry of these large wooden carts could also be used as barricades to deter attackers while soldiers built walls and trenches.

The Chinese wheelbarrow (including its 3-ft.-dia. wheel) was made of hardwood and could carry six people or about 600 pounds of materials. Unlike the Western wheelbarrow design, the cargo section of the lu che (and therefore the weight) is balanced directly over the wheel. As a result, the operator does less lifting and primarily pushes, balances and steers the vehicle. Handles are also designed to allow the driver (or an ox or mule) to pull the lu che like a cart as well as to push it. To help propel the vehicles, some lu che were enhanced with a large sail made of cloth and framed with wood. (It seems that this would be of benefit only if one were traveling in the same direction as the wind.)

The wheelbarrow more familiar to Westerners has a much smaller wheel, which is positioned out in front of the load. This design is better suited for short-distance hauling and frequent loading and unloading of cargo – exactly what we DIYers want in our wheelbarrows.

Modern upgrades to the wheelbarrow include vacuum-cleaner designer James Dyson's ballbarrow (photo below) in 1974 and other enhancements such as hand brakes, rear wheels and small motors. But the basic design of a one-wheel cart endures, and from the beginning, it offered many advantages. Compared with a traditional wagon, it is cheaper and easier to construct, requires only a single-lane path, produces less rocking and bouncing over rough terrain, offers greater maneuverability and is easier to tip, turn and unload. Today, these features make modern wheelbarrows indispensible transporters for anyone who has a yard, a construction project or a little helper in need of some amusement.

Dyson's 1974 Ballbarrow offered innovative changes to the classic wheelbarrow, featuring a washable cargo area, a spherical tire and large-sole feet (for stability).