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Lynn Hummel: Lift it, push it, roll it, dump it

One of the greatest inventions of all time has no apps, no screen, no camera, no buttons, no bells, no whistles, no memory, no computer chips, burns no greenhouse gases, leaves no carbon footprint and plays no music. All it has is one tire, one bucket and two handles. It’s a wheelbarrow, and I, along with millions of gardeners and laborers, use a wheelbarrow every day. Couldn’t get along without it.

As you might imagine, wheelbarrows have been around for a long time. No, Abraham Lincoln did not invent the device along with everything else he did. Murals on the walls of tombs in China at about 150 years after the birth of Christ, show a man pushing a wheelbarrow. In the early days, some of them had sails to make the pushing lighter. History records that playboy Roman Emperor Elagabalus used the wheelbarrow to transport women back and forth in the frivolous games he played on the palace lawn.

It is not clear who invented the wheelbarrow (the name comes from the wheel and the old English word “bearwe” which was a device for carrying loads), but it is pure genius because it is so simple and it enables the operator to transport much heavier and bulkier loads than he or she could possibly manage without one. Since the load is forward of the handles, the handles operate as levers. Physicists would call the wheelbarrow a second-class lever.

When I was growing up and working on construction crews, the wheelbarrow became a test of manhood. Whenever a project required a cement pour for a foundation (there was no ready-mix in our town), we mixed our own cement and the crew would assign some 16 year old boy to haul the cement in one of the wheelbarrows. That would require pushing the wet cement up a plank, balancing, turning corners, and maneuvering to pour the soup down the foundation walls. The kid always acted tough and confident, but he was in terror of not being able to push it or losing his balance and dumping a load. They might tolerate one wasted load, but never two. It was a great feeling to be able to handle that challenge.

The wheelbarrow is so efficient there have been very few refinements from the early drawings on the cave walls, though in the 1970s, a British inventor by the name of James Dyson came up with a variation he called the ballbarrow which had a spherical ball in place of the usual wheel to make the barrow easier to push on soft soil and more laterally stable with heavy loads on uneven ground.

A factory worker in Russia pushed a wheelbarrow full of waste, dirt and debris out the factory door every day at the end of his shift.  The factory guard carefully searched and sifted the load daily to make sure valuable materials were not being stolen. The search revealed nothing, but the guard could not shake his suspicions. This went on daily for five years. Finally, the guard was about to retire, and on his last day, frustrated and whipped, he confronted the worker: (translated from Russian) “Look, I know you’re stealing something. Please tell me what it is and I guarantee you will not suffer any consequences. But I need to know or I’ll go crazy.” The worker looked the guard in the eye. “Is that a promise?” “Yes, on my mother’s grave I promise you — no repercussions. Now tell me.” “Alright,” confessed the worker — “I’m stealing wheelbarrows.”

The moral of the story is this: the wheelbarrow is truly one of the oldest, simplest and greatest of all inventions — good for handling gardening supplies, rocks, wood, fresh cement, dirt, debris, and sweethearts around the lawn, good for testing a boys’ manhood and perfect for disguising the theft of wheelbarrows.