Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Vitruvian Wheelbarrow

Last night I watched a show on the ABC (I think it came from Channel 4 in the UK originally) , Rome wasn't built in a day, in which a group of tradies try to build a Roman villa using the techniques described by Vitruvius as a guide and only historically or archaeologically attested tools.

This means that most hand tools are allowed, and most of them are pretty similar to those found in Bunnings or Mitre 10 today - if you doubt me go look at the rather fine collection of tools from Silchester in the Reading Museum.

However Vitruvius does not mention wheelbarrows. Neither does any other Roman author, so no wheelbarrows. In fact one of the archaeologists in the show had a tanty over the builders trying to sneak wheelbarrows on site.

This of course begs the question as to why Vitruvius doesn't mention wheelbarrows. The obvious answer is that the Romans didn't use them. Certainly carvings of Roman squaddies building things, eg Trajan's column are fairly wheelbarrow free.

Now the Romans were reasonably clever and innovative, and also in contact with a lot of other cultures so the old 'they didn't think of it' argument is a bit thin. Let's assume that they did think of it and it didn't work for them, and try and work out why that might be the case.

At its simplest, a wheelbarrow is two levers, the shafts in an inverted V pivoted at the apex of the V on the wheel. This means that most of the weight and force acts down through the wheel. Overload a cheap wheelbarrow often enough and the wheel, its axle, or the mount will break. This is why builder's wheelbarrows often seem to have overly robust wheels and axles.

Modern wheelbarrows are built of steel. Nineteenth century ones, as used by navvies building the first railway lines in England were of wood, but often with cast iron wheels. Wooden wheelbarrows were probably heavier for their strength but nothing precludes using wood for the shafts or the frame.

What is interesting is the adoption of cast iron wheels. Obviously the wheel and it's axle was seen as a weak point and hence the adoption of cast iron to reduce the risk of failure. Equally there is nothing to stop you building a wheel barrow with a wooden wheel, perhaps with an iron rim and straps for strength.

The question is whether nineteenth century construction workers adopted the iron wheeled wheelbarrow because of its greater durability or because it was cheaper (or both). Answering this question would probably give us a clue as to why Vitruvius does not mention wheelbarrows - it might simply be that making one durable enough was uneconomic for the Romans. Handcarts and extra slaves to push and shove may simply have been more cost effective .

[update 07 October]

I'm quite possibly wrong on some of the above. Wikipedia, who else, has an excellent article on wheelbarrows, and I now know that the Greeks may well have used wheelbarrows, but they seem to have disappeared from the historical record in Roman times only to reappear in northwestern Europe sometime between 1150 and 1250. I'd personally view this date with some caution, as it coincides with the appearance of illuminated manuscripts and their associated maginalia - which form a source of information about daily life along with some more fanciful suggestions such as alternative uses for trumpets - in the area under consideration, but there appears to be reasonable agreement that wheelbarrows were relatively uncommon until the 1400's.

I could wave my hands and claim that this was possibly in part due to the ongoing shortage of labour after the Black Death, which made using a wheelbarrow with its risk of breakage and accompanying cost of replacement worthwhile, but I am making it up with no evidence at all.

Certainly a very superficial study of pictures in which wheelbarrows feature suggests they were used for lighter as opposed to heavier work, so I still feel my suggestion that it was not until the advent of iron wheel assemblies and mounts that the wheelbarrow became useful in heavy construction, such as canal and railway building in eighteenth and nineteenth century England.

This is however only a supposition, and having been wrong once, I could be wrong a second time ...

1 comment:

~Drifter~ said...

I just finished watching that exact same show, and was wondering the same thing. Did a search on Google and came upon your post.
I must admit I was astonished that they did not have wheelbarrows back then. As shown, they would have made the work a lot easier.
If, as you mentioned, they were using wood to make there barrows, they would have been extremely heavy and not really all that useful.
They would probably have used large carts pulled by donkey or ox, which unfortunately in that program they did not have. Although they tried.
I feel that the program was good, but a couple of things were an issue with me, one being that they would have had someone else build there tools/equipment for them before hand.
You don't go suddenly into building a house with absolutely nothing, so they should at least have been equipped with somethings from the period, and I don't mean the couple of things they were allowed to bring with.