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What Wheelbarrows Can Teach Us About World History

Updated: Apr 11

What Wheelbarrows Can Teach Us About World History
What Wheelbarrows Can Teach Us About World History

What Wheelbarrows Can Teach Us About World History

I like wheelbarrows!

And over the years I have marvelled at the many iterations of wheelbarrows that have developed. I take the wheelbarrow for granted.

But what if the wheelbarrow were not an option?

When we think about it, it seems like a logical conclusion to a problem, yet many cultures in the past did not arrive at the invention of the wheelbarrow.

If I did not have a wheelbarrow would I then decide to carry heavy loads balanced on my head?

Does our modern bias and thinking that people should think like we think tell us something about ourselves and other worldviews?

The Invention of the Wheelbarrow

Wheelbarrows are human-powered carts with one wheel to assist in carrying all kinds of burdens, from harvested crops to mine tailings, and pottery to building materials. Sickly, wounded, or elderly people could be carried to the doctor before the advent of the ambulance.

It's one of those ideas that seems so self-evident, once you have seen it in action. Rather than carrying heavy loads on your back or burdening a pack animal with them, you can put them into a tub or basket that has a wheel and long handles for pushing or pulling. The wheelbarrow does most of the work for you. But who first came up with this brilliant idea? Where was the wheelbarrow invented?

The First Wheelbarrow

The first wheelbarrows seem to have been created in China—along with the first gunpowder, paper, seismoscopes, paper currency, magnetic compasses, crossbows, and many other key inventions.

The earliest evidence of Chinese wheelbarrows is found in illustrations dated around 100 CE, during the Han dynasty. These wheelbarrows had a single wheel at the front of the load, and the operator holding the handles carried about half the weight. A wall painting in a tomb near Chengdu, in Sichuan Province and dated to 118 CE, shows a man using a wheelbarrow. Another tomb, also in Sichuan Province, includes a depiction of a wheelbarrow in its carved wall reliefs; that example dates back to the year 147 CE..." from the article: The Invention of the Wheelbarrow

What Wheelbarrows Can Teach Us About World History

Video from Premodernist

"I use the example of the wheelbarrow to talk about some general points about the history of technology, and the limits to our ability to reasonably make sweeping generalizations about individual technologies. 0:00 Some people overestimate how necessary wheelbarrows are 3:53 Technologies are only obvious in hindsight 7:23 It's really hard to trace the origins of a technology 11:44 Technologies have context" from the video introduction

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