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How to Downsize a Transport Network: The Chinese Wheelbarrow (2011) (lowtechmagazine.com)
55 points by poissonpie 1348 days ago | hide | past | web | 13 comments | favorite



An interesting fact I learnt from the article is that both European and Chinese went backwards in terms of infrastructure at some point. So maybe dark age is not a singular historical event, and could re-occur in the future?


The idea of a massive, extremely long "dark age" in the future is one of the premises of Asimov's Foundation series. One of the early protagonists had an interesting approach to solving it, a sort of covert galactic Library of Alexandria.

I highly recommend the series if you find this idea interesting, enjoy Asimovian science fiction, or are a living human being.


Interesting. Wouldn't having a lasting archive of previous knowledge and advancements prevent another dark age?

In the past, most knowledge was transferred among people verbally or located in geographically separate areas.


Preservation of knowledge itself is insufficient to prevent things from being lost.

It's something the US is dealing with, particularly in military and aerospace. You stop doing something long enough and, despite having schematics and documentation around, nobody is left that actually knows how to do it. See for example the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the resumption of classical capsule-based spacecraft, we're still in the process of re-learning a lot of knowledge we already gained during the Apollo era. And that's merely a few decades.

Not to mention "dark ages" aren't necessarily the loss of knowledge, but rather the loss of governance. Neither China or Europe ever lost the ability to build roads, but yet the infrastructure deteriorated and was not replaced. This suggests economic, political, and/or religious causes, not the loss of knowledge.

I don't think we've figured this governance thing out to the point where we're safe from regressing to a state where public infrastructure breaks down in a massive way.


Coordination is huge, too—most things have a huge number of upstream dependencies. Knowing how to build advanced circuits is of little use if the chip foundries can't make semiconductors and ship them to you.


It never was a singular event. In the late Bronze Age there was a darker age. Complex social structures collapsed, technologies forgotten for eight centuries and the population to some regions reduced to 1/9 of its former size.


The european wheelbarrow is used for short distances at construction sites, farms etc, and the wheel is at the front to enable tipping the wheelbarrow forwards for full unloading. Different use case, different design.


You can do that with the chinese wheelbarrow as well. Here, its design enables more use-cases.


I am unconvinced by "The Europeans[..]did not adapt and subsequently lost the option of smooth land transportation for almost one thousand years."

By the subsequent text, "Roman road infrastructure remained relatively useful until about the 11th century AD" and they started building them again in the late middle age. The middle ages by definition in the 15th century so the 11th is already near the late middle age.

Moreover:

"New roads appeared during the economic revival of the late Middle Ages, but these were not paved or hardened in any other way. This made them at best inefficient in good weather and nearly impassable when (and after) it rained. "

But that is also true of the chinese ones. I imagine pushing a wheelbarrow balancing on a single central wheel in the mud is not easier than a two wheeled cart.

Good article nonetheless, but I thought the "dark ages" trope was already discredited?


You may find one of the comments on the article interesting. Here's a excerpt:

  > "Niether can you compare the road systems. Europe never 
  > had a mercantile road system because it never needed 
  > one because of the excellent water transport. Europe 
  > has the highest density of navigable rivers in the 
  > world as well as the longest fractal coastline. Few 
  > places in Europe were more than a half-day travel by 
  > wagon from water transport. All they needed were short
  > stretches of local road to connect 
  > to the nearest water transport.
[1] http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2011/12/the-chinese-wheelbarr...


>I am unconvinced by "The Europeans[..]did not adapt and subsequently lost the option of smooth land transportation for almost one thousand years."

>By the subsequent text, "Roman road infrastructure remained relatively useful until about the 11th century AD" and they started building them again in the late middle age. The middle ages by definition in the 15th century so the 11th is already near the late middle age.

it isn't that Roman roads disappeared as physical artefacts - they are still there. It is the long-distance trade using this roads under protection of unified Roman Empire stopped. Similarly like long distance trade blooming under Mongol Empire (without any noticeable road infrastructure) had decreased significantly with Mongol Empire breaking up.


> But that is also true of the chinese ones.

The article claims that this was only the case on the eastern plains, and that large parts of the network of paths in China actually were paved.


Fascinating look at technology history. People in the past may not have had modern materials or design but they were still really smart about how to make things work.




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