Wheelbarrows have not changed considerably over the millennia that they have been around. China and Europe both developed wheelbarrows independently and approximately 1,000 years apart. In the United States wheelbarrows have become a necessary tool that construction workers, home and professional gardeners use. They were created so a single user could easily move heavy loads from one place to another. The modern English word was derived from Old English bearwe. A barrow (bearwe) is a basket or stretcher used to carry people and goods.
Chuko Liang (181-234 AD), a Chinese general during the early Imperial China under the Han Dynasty, developed the first recorded wheelbarrow. It was used to transport supplies to injured soldiers. The original device had two wheels and required two people to move it. The original wheelbarrow was redesigned so a single centered wheel was beneath the cart. This redistributed the weight so one person could push the wheelbarrow. Chinese historians give credit to Zhuge Lianb, a prime minister under the Three Kingdoms Dynasty, for the development of the single-wheel wheelbarrow.
Wheelbarrows were not used or made in Europe until the 11th or 12th centuries. Before then, a "barrow", a hard stretcher-like piece of equipment was used to transport items. A barrow had a flat, hard center with two handles protruding from both ends and required two people to move it. A single-wheeled barrow (wheelbarrow) was first noted in European history by a stain glass window at Chartres Cathedral in France. In Europe, the wheelbarrow was designed with the wheel at the front of the cart.
Settlers brought wheelbarrows with them to the New World. It could be said that the United States was built by wheelbarrows. They were used in the developing colonies and continued with little change to their design as the young country expanded its borders west. Goldminers are often depicted as pushing wheelbarrows with all of their equipment on board. Coalminers also used them to transport tools and coal between the mine shafts and the surface.
Wheelbarrows were designed to alleviate the need for two or more people to transport goods. The single wheel beneath the cart helps to spread the weight evenly and acts as leverage, enabling a single person to move heavy loads with ease, when the cart is properly loaded. Chinese wheelbarrows were larger and designed to carry people as well as goods.
Modern wheelbarrows used in the United States are made of either plastic or aluminum for basic home use. Professional contractors in construction, landscaping and nursery production use steel wheelbarrows. The steel wheelbarrows are more durable. The basic design found in ancient Chinese and European wheelbarrows remains virtually unchanged.