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The Ancient and Humble Wheelbarrow

So as a marketer for a construction company I’m always checking out our job sites looking for new and interesting content. I’m mainly looking for photo & video opportunities, but I’m also looking for stories. Stories about the client or company we’re building for, stories about the architect we’re working with or stories about the tools we use.

Most recently I’ve been looking at high tech tools such as drones, cranes and AI, but last week I visited a big project and noticed the heavy reliance on a tool which has essentially remained unchanged for thousands of years and is so common around the world that it’s practically invisible. Am I referring to the hammer, the screwdriver or the tape measure? No, the focus of this little write-up will be none other than the ancient and humble wheelbarrow.

The job site I was visiting was in its early days with work only starting the week before my arrival and what I saw was that the whole project, at least at this stage, was centered on the movement and availability of two wheelbarrows. Supplies and raw materials were being brought onto the site with one, while debris was being hauled out with the other. After witnessing this, the first thing that became clear was that without these two barrows, the work would have been much slower and considerably less safe. The second thing was that even though these barrows were of different brands and slightly different sizes, they were interchangeable with either one being perfectly suited for both tasks. And while I might be overstating the obvious a bit here, the economy of movement provided by this dead simple tool can not be. The time, energy and money saved by this one-wheeled dynamo is nothing short of staggering when you really think about it.

The earliest example of a highly maneuverable one-wheeled platform for carrying heavy loads came from China around 100 BC. This was slightly refined by the Greeks a few hundred years later and was then adapted into what we see today in gardening centers and on construction sites by none other than those crafty Romans. After the sunset on the Romans and their empire, the barrow languished unused and forgotten in the European dark ages along with almost everything else the Romans left behind. It wasn’t "discovered" again until the crusaders started trampling all over the holy land and using it as the perfect tool to haul away the piles of gold and silver they'd plundered. As a side note, I have absolutely no historical evidence to back this last bit up about wheelbarrows being used in this way, but the wheelbarrow is thought to have been brought back to Europe around this time by returning crusaders, and the image of knights pushing barrows overloaded with ill-gotten treasure is pretty irresistible, so I’m leaving it in.

Now here we are with a design which has unquestionably stood the test of time. So much so that if you put a new Makita or Kobalt wheelbarrow from Home Depot in front of an illiterate Flemish muck farmer from the middle ages, he’d know exactly what it was and how to use it. I'm not sure you'd have the same luck with anything else commonly found on a farm except maybe a pig or a sheep. Apart from the odd tweak here and there, the wheelbarrow has remained essentially unchanged. Today there are four different types of “tray” to choose from depending on your needs (The shallow barrow for gardening, The builders barrow, the utility barrow and the brick barrow) but the frame and layout is exactly the same with a wheel at one end, handles at the other and a oblong bucket in the middle. But this isn’t to say that some people haven’t tried to improve or incorporate modern technology into barrow design. In the 1960s, an enterprising Englishman combined a hovercraft and wheelbarrow together and invented the… yes, you’ve guessed it, The Hoverbarrow. While interesting and somewhat useful, the idea never really gained popularity chiefly due to the fact that The Hooverbarrow could only be used outdoors due to its massive size. If you wanted to transport a pile of bricks to build a new fireplace for instance, you could load up your Hooverbarrow outside and get them to the front door, but then you’d need to transfer the bricks again to a regular wheelbarrow in order to get them into the living room. More recently motorized and electric wheelbarrows have been touted as the latest & greatest thing since tinned beer, but after a quick look in your local hardware shop, you’ll quickly realize that the demand for a new and improved barrow simply isn’t there yet.

Cheap, reliable, easy to operate and versatile; the wheelbarrow we know, use and love today is pretty much unchanged in its design and purpose since its invention all those thousands of years ago. It would seem that as long as people need to move heavy or cumbersome objects from one location to another, we need a wheelbarrow, and according to the Transparency Market Research website, this isn’t going to change anytime soon. In fact the “Wheelbarrow Market” is apparently growing by leaps and bounds! In 2021 the world wheelbarrow market (who knew?) was estimated to be worth over 600 million dollars and by the end of this decade will be worth just shy of a billion. As batteries get smaller and more powerful, things like motorized wheelbarrows will slowly become more popular, but traditional barrows as we know them, look unlikely to be replaced anytime soon.

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