One-Wheel Wonder

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

Ralph Kinney Bennett praises the One-Wheel Wonder:

Somewhere in ancient China, possibly in the 1st century B.C., a wagon or a horse cart carrying supplies in a military column was smashed to pieces in an accident. A soldier moving the damaged wagon out of the way picked up a shattered section which was still attached to one wheel. Using the wheel, he propelled the piece of wreckage off the roadway and as he did so he experienced one of those little practical epiphanies that have meant so much to civilization.

Rather than pick up and carry the rest of the wreckage and the contents of the wagon off the road, he balanced them on his impromptu one-wheeled ‘tool’ and swiftly cleared the way. Thus, perhaps, was born one of the most elegant and useful tools ever invented by man — the wheelbarrow.

The exact time and place of this ingenious mating of the principle of the lever and the mobility of the wheel cannot be exactly determined, shrouded as it is in the mist of time and legend. A Chinese general, Chuko Liang (181–234 A.D.) is often credited with the invention of the wheelbarrow and its subsequent use transporting military supplies. The Chinese army reportedly found that this device gave it such a logistical advantage that it tried to keep it a military secret for as long as possible.


Europeans seem to have come late to the wheelbarrow game but they vastly improved its capabilities by refining the design. References or depictions of wheelbarrows do not appear in Europe until the late 12th and early 13th centuries. But the European models were very different from the Chinese. They exploited the leverage principle to a much greater degree by simply moving the wheel to the front of the load and making it of smaller diameter. In addition, the European wheelbarrows had long handles, curved in various fashions to aid in lifting and balancing loads.

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