Do You Know Who Invented the Wheelbarrow & When?

As you use your wheelbarrow to haul dirt, mulch, debris to the burn pile, or what seems like miles of hose to connect to the spigot, you probably haven’t thought about the tool’s history. I mean, why would you? Because if you’re like me you’re too busy sweating and cursing its threat to tip, right?! But there’s a rich history to even this vital tool. 

wheelbarrow

Are all wheelbarrows old and worn from faithful use over decades of gardening? We can’t recall a shiny new specimen in any of our gardening lives.

The Many Inventions of the Wheelbarrow

Some credit the Chinese with the invention in 231 AD. John H. Lienhard wrote an article in the 1990s about the Chinese history saying, “The Chinese have had wheelbarrows for millennia. They celebrate a half-mythical inventor named Ko Yu. We don’t know when he lived, but we first read about him in the first century BC. They’ve used them for every kind of task.” The Chinese even added sails and used the wheelbarrow as weapons in battle.

Lienhard goes on to say: “The West was very slow to invent the wheelbarrow. We find no evidence before AD 1220.” He explains that the stained glass told picture stories for the illiterate, common people to understand and that the “earliest known wheelbarrow image gleams down from a stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral.”

Michael Walker points out Greco-Roman uses of the wheelbarrow three centuries before the Chinese. Walker’s sources included a 1994 paper, M. J. T. Lewis, The Origins of the Wheelbarrow. Technology and Culture, Vol. 35, No. 3. (Jul., 1994), pp. 453-475.

As useful a tool as it is, it’s no surprise that it’s been “invented” many times over at various points in history by ingenious workers the world over. (Shout out to Horticulture reader Milton Ammel for sharing this story idea!)

Patty Craft is content director for Horticulture. You can download back issues of Horticulture at GardenersHub.com. Check out more smart gardening articles here.

   

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