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Water Wheel in Ancient China: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The water wheel provided machines with power in ancient times, when the only alternative was human or animal power. In this lesson, learn about how the Chinese developed a water wheel to perform work.

Plug It In

When your smartphone runs out of juice or your Gameboy needs a recharge, all you need to do is find the nearest wall plug. But if you lived 800 years ago, before Gameboys or electricity, what would you do if you needed to get power? You might be a farmer who has to crush grain into flour, or a blacksmith who needs to pump air into the furnace. Without a power cord, how would you get by?

One solution is to use the flow of water in a river, building a water wheel that can provide power. In ancient China, water wheels attached to rivers helped to power early machines.

A river pushes a water wheel, turning the flow into power.
Water wheel

What's so great about a water wheel? Before we had electricity, the only power around was in your arms and legs - and if you had a horse or cow, maybe them too. A lot of professions need power, even hundreds of years ago. To make bread, for instance, you have to grind grain into flour. To make paper, you have to mash pulp. To get metal out of rock, you need to hammer down on the rock. Water wheels provided this power, transforming how people do work.

Old School

Although the Chinese developed advanced water wheels, they weren't the first ones to figure out that the flow of a river could be a useful tool. In fact, the earliest water wheels are from about 4,000 years ago. It would be another 2,000 years before they appeared in China, at about the same time as they appeared in Europe. One reason why they showed up at the same time is the creation of the Silk Road, a trade network that linked China with Europe. The Silk Road allowed lots of things (especially silk!) to be traded to and fro, while technology like the water wheel came to new places.

The Silk Road connected China to Europe.
Silk Road map

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