Saturday, October 22, 2016

Big Wheels Rolling

The Chinese wheelbarrow is one of those wonderful bits of historical flavor I love about the classic era.  This particular illustration comes to us from the "Shanghai" pages of the New York Public Library's digital collection

Well into the modern era a huge amount of China's land transportation was handled by a massive network of roads and trails designed for these unique, mono-wheeled carts.  They're the kind of thing any adventurer in China, in particular those taking part in Chaosium's "Masks of Nyarlathotep", would run into on a regular basis.

It's an ingenious design capable of carrying huge loads because all the weight is supported by the single large wheel.  The operator simply steers and provides the motive force.  That's in contrast to the traditional western wheelbarrow, which forced the user to continuously lift roughly half the weight.  The single wheel also made infrastructure maintenance considerably easier.  Two and four wheeled carts needed a full sized road that required constant grading, drainage, and repairs to stand up to heavy use.  Chinese wheelbarrows only needed a six inch wide trail to support the single wheel, something even the smallest of villages could manage.

If you're curious to learn more Low Tech Magazine has a detailed, in-depth article on the subject  you'll enjoy.  I'll warn you ahead of time that if you start browsing the site you could easily lose track of time.  It's filled with engrossing looks at "primitive" and early industrial technology.

1 comment:

CoastConFan said...

What an absolutely great article.

The two central features of the Chinese wheelbarrow are the central location of the wheel, but also the size of the wheel which makes it really functional. Although not discussed in the article, the large wheel allows for easier going versus the small wheel of the European wheelbarrow. The drawback of the high wheel Chinese wheelbarrow is the instability factor of a one wheeled cart and a propensity of tipping if they get just a bit out of balance. The European cart, because of the forward wheel and the two rear legs, is easy to get back into control in a tipping situation – you just let it settle to the ground, because you have three points to rest upon. The European wheelbarrow was for very short hauls over even ground, rather than for long distance and we know that form follows function.

The Chinese wheelbarrow is a great device for rough going as the large wheel is much more efficient than a smaller wheel over uneven, rutted ground. It’s essentially a one wheeled cart, rather than a wheelbarrow with a small wheel, really. About the only point of similarity between the European and Chinese wheelbarrows is the two shafts with a driver/motive power between the shafts. Really the Chinese wheelbarrow is a very efficient one wheeled cart rather than a wheelbarrow. I’d like to see this clever device appear in stories and RPG rule sets.