In The Classroom: Chinese Inventions that Changed Transportation

This past weekend I was able to board an airplane and in as little as 3 hours I had traveled 1,356 miles.  Though this is standard and not much to brag about it would not be possible without a few Chinese inventions.  So put down that cell phone or  hand-held device and get hooked on ancient Chinese inventions that changed transportation -- no electricity needed!


Man pushing "taxi" with six passengers, China, 1930.
I know you might be asking yourself how a wheelbarrow has anything to do with air travel.  The origins of this invention come from as early as the 1st Century B.C.E. and were rumored to have been invented by Ko Yu.  The essential design of the wheelbarrow is to distribute the weight of a load.  The primary usage of the wheelbarrow was for military purposes.  The single front wheel made maneuvering through rocky and winding areas much more easy. Not only were supplies being transported during war time but also people.  That’s right, you see, just like an airplane people would be taken from one location to the next.  These kinds of wheelbarrows had wooden benches attached to each side and then would be carried by a man.

Nicknames for the wheelbarrow were, wooden ox and gliding horse as they later became predominantly used for farming and construction.

 Activity - Wheelbarrow Race: For this invention, I have put together two activities.  The first is an outdoor physical activity that your class is sure to love!  

Materials: 2 sets of 4 bean bags (preferably different colors), wide-open, grassy space like the school soccer field. 

Split the class into two groups and assign each group a color associated with a set of bean bags. Have each group stand in one line.  Set up the bean bags in a pile in front of the corresponding team about six feet away or more.  The child at the front of the line will be the wheelbarrow.  He/she should lay down and place both hands on the ground.  The next child in line will grab the feet of the child acting like a wheelbarrow who should then be able to walk with their hands.  When each group is ready, they will race to the pile of bean bags.  The bags will be "loaded" into the wheelbarrow (can be placed on the back of the child) and delivered back to the line to the next set of students who will bring the bean bags back out to the field, also as a wheelbarrow team.  

This activity will help strengthen shoulder muscles and help with gross motor skills.  It will also reinforce the concept to team work.  There are limitations to this activity, especially with children who have shoulder injuries or breaks anywhere in the arm, as well as children with special disabilities.  Modify as needed. 

Activity - A Wheelbarrow Full:  The goal of this activity is to fill the wheelbarrow with something positive.  For example, cut out paper clouds from paper of varying shades of blue.  Have each child write an dream or goal they might have.  Glue or mount the clouds in the wheelbarrow and you have A Wheelbarrow Full of Dreams. 
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 Modern navigation has all the bells and whistles and can be used with ease but did you know the first compass was a magnetized soup spoon?  The compass was created in the 4th Century B.C.E. during the Han Dynasty and was first used for fortune telling and feng shui.

Compass used during the Han Dynasty using a soup spoon.
Eventually gem seekers began to use the compass to locate jade and other precious metals and stones. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) the compass began being used for navigation. The typical Chinese navigational compass was a magnetic needle floating in a container of water. Sailors used the sun and stars as their directional guides; however, on overcast days and nights the compass came in handy.

Activity - Create your own compass: This is a fairly simple activity that we do at the museum during our Ancient Chinese Science and Technology Classroom Exhibit Presentation. 

Materials: Sewing needle (cutting up a paper clip will work too), a small bowl of water, foam sheet cut into small circles or thin piece of cork, bar magnet.

Take your bar magnet and brush one end of your sewing needle on the north side of your magnet several times.  Do not rub the needle back and fourth but rather use complete strokes as if you were lighting a match.   This process with magnetize your needle, giving it a positive and negative charge.  Place your cork or your foam circle into the water dish and gently lay your needle on the floating cork or foam circle.  Next, watch as the needle begins to turn in circles and should stop while pointing in the North/South direction.  

Now you've created a compass!  During our classroom presentations, we allow small groups of children to work together to accomplish this task. 

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 The Helicopter Rotor and Propeller

Travel by air is extremely commonplace today. However, did you know that without a Chinese toy we might still be traveling by ground only? A flying top called the bamboo dragonfly was a whimsical toy that could take flight by the pulling of a wound cord.

Beyond it being an amusing toy, the Chinese never pursued this concept of flight. It took centuries later for the father of modern aeronautics, George Cayley to use the bamboo dragonfly as the object of many experiments. These early experiments led to the creation of the helicopter rotor and propeller.

Activity: Create your own bamboo dragonfly: Here's a link to LetusDIY with instructions on how to create your own "Bamboo Dragonfly."  Enjoy!

The next time you are flying the friendly skies take a minute to think about the early innovative people of China and all the other amazing inventions that came to be. 

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