History Of The Wheel: How Was The Wheel Invented?

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Around 3500 BC, a brilliant idea struck one of the wise Homo sapiens living in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). They cut a disc from the trunk of a tree and made a hole in its center. The end product was the wheel.

The invention of the wheel is often considered a hallmark of human innovation, and it has proved to be one of humanity’s greatest blessings. 

Wheel: the backbone of our transportation system

The concept of the world as a global village has become a reality because of the wheel, as it allows us to cover long distances quickly.

However, have you ever wondered how this innovative creation came into existence?

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Dearth Of Natural Inspiration

When you carefully peruse mankind’s history, you’ll notice that most inventions were inspired by the natural world. For example, the idea for the pitchfork came from forked sticks in the wild. Similarly, gliding birds served as the muse for the invention of the airplane.

Tumbleweed – a wheeled organism. (Photo Credit: Edmond Meinfelder/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the reasons it took a long time for man to invent the wheel is that there was no organic example of the wheel in nature. However, the work of naturalists like Michael La-Barbera from the University of Chicago suggests that bacterial flagella, tumbleweeds, and dung beetles do come close. Some biologists call these “wheeled organisms,” but that’s a very loose term, as they roll as a form of locomotion but are not perfectly spherical or circular.

The Invention Of The First Wheel

Before the wheel’s invention, people carried heavy loads themselves. Later, they began using animals like oxen, horses, donkeys, and camels to carry loads. Gradually, people started dragging wood planks with the help of animals to carry loads. Around 3500 BC, an idea struck one of the wise Homo sapiens in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). 

Potter’s wheel
Potter’s Wheel (Image Credit: Pxhere)

He cut a disc from a tree trunk and made a hole in the center, creating the wheel – arguably the greatest invention in human history. However, the wheel he invented was initially used for pottery, not for transportation.

The Wheel As A Vehicle

After a brief stint of using the wheel for pottery, someone used two wheels to form a cart. He made this from the trunk of a tree, which was joined by an axle that was fastened to a platform of wood. This was the first crude cart in the world. In this cart, both the wheels and axle moved. The next improvement in using the wheel was fastening the axle to the vehicle and letting the wheels spin freely. The first wheeled vehicles were bullock carts, war chariots, and four-wheeled carts of the gods. Gradually, the spoke wheel was invented around 2000 BC, which considerably reduced the wheel’s weight.

Catherine Wheel – Wheel Of Death

Much of the credit for progress in the modern age goes to the wheel, but the wheel has also become a source of death for many! Actually, in the Middle Ages, ‘breaking on the wheel’ was a form of capital punishment.

A culprit would be stretched across the face of a wheel and bludgeoned to death by an iron-rimmed wheel pounded over him with a hammer. In one such variation, Saint Catherine of Alexandria was wrapped around the rim of a spiked wheel in the early fourth century and rolled across the ground. As per the legends, the wheel ‘divinely’ broke, and Saint Catherine was able to escape. The breaking wheel since then has been called a Catherine wheel.

Breaking Wheel
Catherine wheel execution. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Wheels For Perpetual Machines

For centuries, scientists, mathematicians, tinkerers, and even philosophers have tried to master perpetual motion—a device that, once set in motion, would continue in motion perennially, producing more energy than it consumes. One of the easiest attempts to design this machine was using a wheel.

A watermill wheel is an example of such a machine that uses weight changes to incessantly rotate. However, no matter the design philosophy, all such perpetual motion machines violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which state that energy cannot be created or destroyed and that some portion of energy is lost in converting heat to work. Many patents for a wheel-based perpetual motion machine have been discarded by the US Patent Office because inventors could not produce proper working models.

Perpetual motion wheels
Perpetual motion design using wooden wheels (design is inspired by a drawing of Leonardo da Vinci). (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Also Read: The 8 Greatest Inventions Of All Time

The First Patent Of The Wheel

Although the wheel is an ancient invention, it is interesting to learn how patents related to wheels were procured. According to the records at the US patent office, James Macomb of Princeton was the first man to secure a patent involving a wheel for the design of a horizontal hollow water wheel for hydropower. Although the patent office acknowledges that a patent was issued to him, the original record of the patent was destroyed in the unfortunate 1836 US patent office fire.

Our Progress Continues With Wheels

With the passage of time, numerous improvements have been made to the design of wheels. Today, the rims and spokes of the wheels are typically made of iron. Rubber tires and tubes are then put around them. Due to these improvements, the wheel has become lighter, more efficient, and long-lasting. It is not an exaggeration to say that, with the help of the wheel, the world is progressing as fast as ever!

Also Read: What Do The Numbers On Car Tires Mean?

Last Updated By: Ashish Tiwari

References (click to expand)
  1. When was the wheel invented?.
  2. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.
  4. The Wheel Revisited | The Engines of Our Ingenuity.
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About the Author

Hussain Kanchwala is an Electronic Engineer from University of Mumbai. He is a tech aficionado who loves to explicate on wide range of subjects from applied and interdisciplinary sciences like Engineering, Technology, FinTech, Pharmacy, Psychology and Economics.

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