At the time of its advent, the Chinese Wheelbarrow was a bit of a marvel of engineering. Like most ingenious but deceptively simple bits of ingenuity, it arose because there was a need for it. The infrastructure in China at the time was such that roads were poorly maintained, and beginning to become unusable. Without easy-to-traverse roads, Chinese citizens were presented with some problems, but the need was not for a camping cart.
Humans can walk anywhere, but are limited in how much they can carry and how far. Pack animals are nearly as mobile. They had already been selected and bred to be able to carry greater burdens with greater stamina, but they were still less useful laden on their own than they would have been pulling a proper cart, which was impossible without maintained roads. They also required significant resources to keep such as food, water, and real estate.
Necessity, as they say, really is the mother of invention. Enter this design of wheelbarrow, a device that's slim, before you pile it high with goods, at least, easy to maneuver with precision in small areas and over rough ground. The Chinese Wheelbarrow only requires a single human operator and no pack animal assistance. In addition, it can carry a significant amount of weight and bulk, even equal to that of a pack animal.
The physics in play mean that the burden of weight does not primarily rest on the operator. The design is structured around a single large wheel. This means it takes up very little space on potentially unwelcoming ground even if the mass closer to waist level is much wider.
By relatively early on, Chinese Wheelbarrows were modified to be able to steer from most directions and angles. Balanced properly, they could carry six people with one person pushing. The device was so popular and its fundamental ideas so basic that a separate but related tool was actually devised that was moved by the wind with a sail.
Today's interpretation of the Chinese Wheelbarrow uses CAD technologies to scientifically place the load directly over the axle. This design in the Honey Badger Wheel also empowers the operator with precision measurements for placement of the fulcrum or handlebar stem. Additionally, the force of the equilibrium has been properly balanced to keep the load from tipping laterally even on the most unforgiving terrain.
In the structure of a wheelbarrow of this design, the single wheel takes almost all of the weight. The human driving the wheelbarrow is just the operator, mostly only guiding it even if it's significantly overburdened - as it's designed to be.
It's difficult to pin down from oblique mentions in texts on other subjects exactly when this style of wheelbarrow first appeared, but its invention falls within the Han Dynasty, a period of Chinese history that lasted four centuries surrounding 0 A.D. The same basic design has been in use since then, only being made with more modern materials as humanity advances its technology. In recent history the ubiquity of its use has only really decreased in China with the greater adoption of cars that has spanned the past century.
Officially, the invention of this device is credited to the Prime Minster of Shu Han, one of the major states in power in the Three Kingdoms Period, Zhuge Liang, in the year 231 A.D. Chinese wheelbarrows in their basic design seem to predate that significantly, however. Stories, fables, and historical records like the Hou Han Shu allude to people and objects being carried as much as two hundred years before that, in the first century B.C. Archaeologists have found art containing wheelbarrows dated to 118 A.D.
So, no, the Chinese Wheelbarrow was not specifically intended to be a camping cart. It was for its time a marvel of human transportation for materiel and human cargo.
Regardless of its original role, the ability to transport passengers or heavy loads over otherwise difficult-to-navigate terrain means the design of the Chinese Wheelbarrow makes a great camping cart. We humans are still ironically challenged transporters outside of our modern terrain. We need a modern tool to assist us where our modern creations have not touched the wild. And the Honey Badger Wheel is exactly that.
Photo courtesy of Russ Meyer at GotHunts.com
It is a modern version that reinforces principles of the ancient design that helped people get around when human society was in many ways unrecognizably different. It is made to haul gear and even human cargo through woods and mountains on hikes, to camp sites, on survivalist expeditions, and even in preparation for the prepper dream called the zombie apocalypse. But most of us will use the modern camping cart to fulfill an outdoor lifestyle with our loved ones.
At the time of its first invention, the wheelbarrow design was much more novel than it is considered today. Ancient China wasn't the only area to independently invent wheelbarrows. Ancient Rome, for example, had their own style. Much of the west, however, had either not invented or not retained the technology at the time. Pioneers that traveled West during the Great American Migration used handcarts. Today many people think of a wheelbarrow as a gardening or work tool around the house.
The wider, lower western style of single-wheel wheelbarrow, for its part, is designed differently. Another invention to retain the same basic design over the millennia, the western wheelbarrow has a smaller wheel which is placed to one end instead of in the center with the carrying structure built around it. This design requires significant effort by the user because the load is placed between the force and the pivot. In this sense the Ancient Chinese Wheelbarrow was ahead of even modern wheelbarrow designs. The load was placed in the most efficient position.
The result of the ultimate design of today's wheelbarrow to that end of this example of convergent evolution in human invention is that more effort is expended by the operator to manage the weight of the burden in the barrow and to leverage all of that weight onto the wheel to get the device moving. We have regressed in efficiency. This in turn results in less fine maneuverability when moving heavy loads.
For these reasons the western style wheelbarrow has never been used to transport objects over long distances, never mind passengers. We have failed to fully employ simple physics for our benefit. For this reason, taking a look back to the past and exploring modern possibilities, have helped us to reinvent one of the greatest ancient tools called the Chinese Wheelbarrow.