A wheelbarrow is a small hand-propelled vehicle, usually with just one wheel, designed to be pushed and guided by a single person using two handles to the rear or a sail may be used to guide the ancient wheelbarrow by wind.
It is designed to distribute the weight of its load between the wheel and the operator so enabling the convenient carriage of heavier and bulkier loads than would be possible were the weight carried entirely by the operator. Their use is common in the construction industry and in gardening. Typical capacity is approximately 170 litres (6 cubic feet) of material.
A two-wheel type is more stable on level ground, while the almost universal one-wheel type has better maneuverability in small spaces, on planks or when tilted ground would throw the load off balance. The use of one wheel also permits greater control of the deposition of the load on emptying.
Since dikyklos and tetrakyklos mean nothing but "two-wheeler" and "four-wheeler," and since the monokyklos body is sandwiched in the Eleusis inventory between a four-wheeler body and its four wheels, to take it as anything but a one-wheeler strains credulity far beyond breaking point. It can only be a wheelbarrow, necessarily guided and balanced by a man...what does now emerge as certainty is that the wheelbarrow did not, as is universally claimed, make its European debut in the Middle Ages. It was there some sixteen centuries before.
Although evidence for the wheelbarrow in ancient farming and mining is absent, it is surmised that wheelbarrows were not uncommon on Greek construction sites for carrying moderately light loads and may have been adopted by the Romans. In Roman sources, e.g., there is a one wheeled vehicle attested in the 4th century AD. While the present evidence does not indicate a continuing use of wheelbarrows into medieval times, the question of continuity in the Byzantine empire is, due to a lack of research yet, still open. Possibly the wheelbarrow was even transmitted to China before disappearing in Western Europe.
The wheelbarrow reappeared in Europe sometime between 1170 and 1250. Medieval wheelbarrows universally featured a wheel at or near the front (in contrast to their Chinese counterparts, which typically had a wheel in the center of the barrow), the arrangement now universally found on wheelbarrows.
Research on the early history of the wheelbarrow is made difficult by the marked absence of a common terminology. The English historian of science M.J.T. Lewis has identified in English and French sources four mentions of wheelbarrows between 1172 and 1222, three of them designated with a different term. According to the medieval art historian Andrea Matthies, the first archival reference to a wheelbarrow in medieval Europe is dated 1222, specifying the purchase of several wheelbarrows for the English king's works at Dover. The first depiction appears in an English manuscript, Matthew Paris's Vitae Offarum, completed in 1250.
By the 13th century, the wheelbarrow proved useful in building construction, mining operations, and agriculture. However, going by surviving documents and illustrations the wheelbarrow remained a relative rarity until the 15th century. It also seemed to be limited to England, France, and the Low Countries.
Nevertheless, the Chinese historical text of the Sanguozhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms), compiled by the ancient historian Chen Shou (233–297 AD), credits the invention of the wheelbarrow to Prime Minister Zhuge Liang (181–234 AD) of Shu Han from 197–234. It was written that in 231 AD, Zhuge Liang developed the vehicle of the wooden ox and used it as a transport for military supplies in a campaign against Cao Wei. Further annotations of the text by Pei Songzhi (430 AD) described the design in detail as a large single central wheel and axle around which a wooden frame was constructed in representation of an ox. Writing later in the 11th century, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) scholar Gao Cheng wrote that the small wheelbarrow of his day, with shafts pointing forward (so that it was pulled), was the direct descendent of Zhuge Liang's wooden ox. Furthermore, he pointed out that the 3rd century 'gliding horse' wheelbarrow featured the simple difference of the shaft pointing backwards (so that it was pushed instead).
Unlike the wheelbarrow innovated later in medieval Europe (with a front wheel meant to carry fairly light loads), the central wheel and axle of wheelbarrows in China allowed their wheelbarrows to haul considerably heavier weights. However, the lower carrying surface made the European wheelbarrow clearly more useful for short-haul work. According to Needham, this feature may have prompted the Chinese later to adopt the European stretcher-type wheelbarrow. Today, as evidenced by pictures, wheelbarrows almost universally feature the front wheel arrangement first introduced in medieval Europe.
Wheelbarrows in China could generally transport six human passengers at once, and instead of a laborious amount of energy exacted upon the animal or human driver pulling the wheelbarrow, the weight of the burden was distributed equally between the wheel and the puller. European visitors to China from the 17th century onwards had an appreciation for this, and was given a considerable amount of attention by a member of the Dutch East India Company, Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, in his writings of 1797 (who accurately described its design and ability to hold large amounts of heavy baggage).
The earliest text describing the Chinese use of mounting masts and sails on large vehicles is the Book of the Golden Hall Master written by the Daoist scholar and crown prince Xiao Yi, who later became Emperor Yuan of Liang (r. 552–554 AD). He wrote that Gaocang Wushu invented a "wind-driven carriage" which was able to carry thirty people at once. There was another built in about 610 for the Emperor Yang of Sui (r. 604–617), as described in the Continuation of the New Discourses on the Talk of the Times. Yet these land sailing vehicles were not wheelbarrows, and the date of which the sailing wheelbarrow was invented is uncertain.
European travelers from the 16th century onwards mentioned sailing carriages with surprise, even though Simon Stevin (1548–1620) introduced the 'land yacht' to Europe. In 1585 (during the Chinese Ming Dynasty), Gonzales de Mendoza wrote that the Chinese had many coaches and wagons mounted with sails, and even depicted them in artwork of silk hanfu robes and on earthenware vessels. In the 1584 atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum written by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), there are large Chinese wheelbarrows depicted with sails and masts. Likewise, there are the same Chinese wheelbarrows with sails depicted in the Atlas of Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594), as well as the 1626 book Kingdome of China by John Speed. The English poet John Milton (1608–1674) popularized the Chinese sailing carriage in Europe with a poem written in 1665. European interest in the Chinese sailing carriage is also seen in the writings of Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest in 1797, who wrote:
Near the southern border of Shandong one finds a kind of wheelbarrow much larger than that which I have been describing, and drawn by a horse or a mule. But judge by my surprise when today I saw a whole fleet of wheelbarrows of the same size. I say, with deliberation, a fleet, for each of them had a sail, mounted on a small mast exactly fixed in a socket arranged at the forward end of the barrow. The sail, made of matting, or more often of cloth, is five or six feet high, and three or four feet broad, with stays, sheets, and halyards, just as on a Chinese ship. The sheets join the shafts of the wheelbarrow and can thus be manipulated by the man in charge.
The Honda HPE60, an electric power-assisted wheelbarrow, was produced in 1998.