Water wheels

I visited the National Design Museum in New York this weekend and saw many amazing things.

If this ever struck you as backbreaking labor:


Then this invention will make you wonder why the rectangular water jug still exists:


It is the Q Drum.

11 thoughts on “Water wheels

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  2. The yellow recycled oil containers are free. Until the Q Drum is free, and available everywhere, I doubt that it will catch on. Even then, women carry everything on their heads (leaving their hands free for children and other baggage). This practice won’t change overnight.

  3. Actually, of the two photos, the boy pulling and straining at the wheel, bent over, jerking when it gets stuck in a rut, strikes me as the more likely “backbreaking” labor… people who haven’t trained themselves since early childhood to balance things on their heads think it must be awful work… but I’m not so sure… why not be sure it is awful work before designing and promoting a replacement, at some considerable cost? (i.e. unwittingly rendering to the dustbin of history what seems to be (see below) one of the most mysterious human physical accomplishments… carrying huge headloads with little energy cost.) Wouldn’t it be fun instead to have Kikuyu women coming over to the U.S. and scoffing at the pathetic carrying capacity of Americans, and implementing training programs in elementary schools to get our kids “up to load capacity”… ;-)

    Letters to Nature
    Nature 319, 668 – 669 (20 February 1986); doi:10.1038/319668a0

    Energetic cost of carrying loads: have African women discovered an economic way?

    G. M. O. Maloiy*, N. C. Heglund†§, L. M. Prager†, G. A. Cavagna‡ & C. R. Taylor†

    *Department of Animal Physiology, University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya
    †Harvard University, Concord Field Station, Bedford, Massachusetts 01730, USA
    ‡University of Milan, Istituto di Fisiologia Umana, Milan 20133, Italy
    §To whom correspondence should be addressed.

    When travelling in East Africa one is often surprised at the prodigious loads carried by the women of the area. It is not uncommon to see women of the Luo tribe carrying loads equivalent to 70% of their body mass balanced on the top of their heads (Fig. 1). Women of the Kikuyu tribe carry equally large loads supported by a strap across their foreheads; this frequently results in a permanently grooved skull. Recent experiments on running horses, humans, dogs and rats showed that the energy expended in carrying a load increased in direct proportion to the weight of the load for each animal at each speed, that is, carrying a load equal to 20% of body weight increased the rate of energy consumption by 20% (ref. 1). The purpose of the present study was to determine whether these African women use specialized mechanisms for carrying very large loads cheaply. We found that both the Luo and Kikuyu women could carry loads of up to 20% of their body weight without increasing their rate of energy consumption. For heavier loads there was a proportional increase in energy consumption, that is, a 30% load increased energy consumption by 10%, a 40% load by 20% and so on. We suggest that some element of training and/or anatomical change since childhood may allow these women to carry heavy loads economically.

    Letters to Nature
    Nature 375, 52 – 54 (04 May 1995); doi:10.1038/375052a0

    Energy-saving gait mechanics with head-supported loads

    N. C. Heglund*, P. A. Willems†, M. Penta† & G. A. Cavagna§

    * Pharos Systems Inc., South Chelmsford, Massachusetts 01824, USA
    † Unité de Réadaptation, Université Catholique de Louvain, 1348 Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium
    § Istituto di Fisiologia Umana, Università di Milano, 20133 Milano, Italy

    IN many areas of the world that lack a transportation infrastructure, people routinely carry extraordinary loads supported by their heads, for example the Sherpa of the Himalayas and the women of East Africa. It has previously been shown that African women from the Kikuyu and Luo tribes can carry loads substantially more cheaply than army recruits1; however, the mechanism for their economy has remained unknown. Here we investigate, using a force platform, the mechanics of carrying head-supported loads by Kikuyu and Luo women. The weight-specific mechanical work, required to maintain the motion of the common centre of mass of the body and load, decreases with load in the African women, whereas it increases in control subjects. The decrease in work by the African women is a result of a greater conservation of mechanical energy resulting from an improved pendulum-like transfer of energy during each step, back and forth between gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy of the centre of mass.

  4. having carried buckets of water on my head (during my peace corps days in africa), i would say that it’s much easier than how that drum looks. especially on a dirt road, which turns to mud in rainy season.

  5. How many times have I seen a group of africans carrying their goods in a nice modern ergonomic rucksack…. balancing on their heads.

    I think that drum would be a little hard to balance.

    And who the heck decided to make it black?!

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  7. While the drum no doubt works well under the right conditions, it does have various drawbacks — I certainly would not condemn headloading as some sort of atavistic practice that is no longer needed. Try pulling that drum uphill over very rough terrain. Or through thick mud in the rainy season. Moreover, the drum requires two hands and headloading often frees up one, if not both, hands. It also looks as if it would be awkward to pull the drum and carry a baby tied on the back — those who transport water are, after all, frequently child care providers as well.

    As the articles on headloading cited here indicate, carrying things by head can be very efficient, especially for people who really know how to do it.

    There are very good reasons, in other words, that headloading technology continues to be widely used today.