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Ways of Progress: Invention and Evolution of the Wheel

Jul 7 read

What could be simpler than a wheel? However, people have been going to this discovery for more than one millennium. It became the most important invention of mankind and we are gonna get acquainted with the wheel history timeline.

How did man invent the wheel?

Many human inventions are inspired by nature but the wheel is exclusive to Homo sapiens. It does not exist in the plant or animal world. Some people are sure that the history of wheels could have arisen from observation of the dung beetle or the tumbleweed plant. But the wheel is actually not as simple as it might seem. Where did the wheel originate from and what was the first wheel used for? Let’s find answers to these questions! 

What is an invention and the wheel itself?

When it comes to important inventions, it often turns out that the circumstances of their appearance are lost in a haze of history. There are no samples and documents left from the work of genuine inventors but legends appear. What is a wheel? Having tuned in to a philosophical mood, we can say that the wheel is a device that connects the moving with the stationary. The rim of the wheel moves but its axle is fixed. The paradox is that the first wheel ever made is completely useless by itself . It makes sense only with the advent of related technologies and inventions in which it finds application. If we turn to scientific facts, it turns out that … the things wheels are used for remain a blank spot in history.

How man invented the wheel

For example, according to one version, the first wheel was invented by the Sumerians as part of a potter’s wheel. What was the wheel used for? The very first slow potter’s wheels were simply turntables but the appearance of a rapidly rotating heavy potter’s wheel on a vertical axis made a real revolution in the craft. The speed of production and the perfection of the form of objects made on a fast potter’s wheel are radically different. When were these types of wheels invented? The oldest examples of such dishes date back to the middle of the 4th millennium BCE (3500 BCE). They were found on the territory of Ur, one of the oldest cities in Mesopotamia (part of modern Iraq).

A spindle is a ring that was worn on the axis of the spindle and served as a weighting agent. It also could be a prototype of the wheel. According to another version, the spindle was a predecessor of the wheel – a wooden or stone ring that was put on the spindle axis and served as a weighting agent, allowing it to keep spinning longer. The spindle preceded the appearance of the whorl and the ability to burn clay – the potter’s wheel, the wheel in transport was preceded by other ways of moving weights. At first, sleds and drags were used for this. Archaeologists believe that the ancient megaliths were built in such a way – from Stonehenge to the Egyptian pyramids. Moreover, they moved along special transverse “sleepers”, lubricated with fat (for better gliding).

Logs were put under the drag, which was released from behind and then shifted forward when moving. So, for example, ships were dragged overland. Rollers can be seen as a distant prototype of wheels but they do not yet have a fixed axle (despite this the wheel history contains such a step). The appearance of the axle, which is attached to the bottom of the carriage, can be considered the starting point for the use of the transportation wheel.

Ljubljana wheel

The oldest archaeological example of a wheel invention from a real wagon was found in 2002 in Ljubljana Barje, a swampy area 15 km from the capital of Slovenia. There was an ancient pile settlement and the find dates back to the period from 3160 to 3100 BCE. It means that the wheel was first created and used during the end of the 4th millennium BCE. A partially preserved wheel disk with a diameter of 72 cm is made of ash and is composed of two boards, which were fastened with metal brackets. There’s a square cut in the larger part. An oak axle found nearby was inserted into it (that element was fixed with oak wedges).

Such ancient wheels rotated with the axle as a whole like modern train wheelsets. Despite the fact that there was limited maneuverability of the crew since one of the wheels had to slip when cornering, the design was relatively simple. However, these wheeels were not the first generation. The first wheels were made whole by cutting off a round disk from the trunk and did not require metal parts but were less durable due to the wood’s tendency to crack radially.

John Michael Keogh filed an application with the patent office In 2001 for what appeared to be an ordinary spoked wheel. As the complainant subsequently argued, the joke was meant to demonstrate the absurdity of Australia’s new patent law, which allows businesses to patent any invention online. The prank was a success: the application was accepted on May 24 and the inventor received a patent for the wheel on June 13. When the document was published on August 2, such a scandal erupted that Keogh was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize. The database of the patent office notes that it was canceled that same summer.

Technology competition

Rigid mounting of the wheel on the axle has become widespread in the territory of modern Germany and Switzerland. Despite this an alternative design developed in parallel, in which the wheels rotated on a fixed axle. It is found mainly in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. These two technologies – rotating and fixed axis – competed in Europe for thousands of years. Independent rotation of the wheels increased maneuverability but required more precision in making round axle holes. Too tight fit interfered with rotation and excessive play led to a loosening of the wheel. Subsequently, the hole was even strengthened with metal.

Since the second design seems to be more advanced, and the Middle East is usually considered to be the origin of the wheel, some scholars have suggested that simplification occurred along the way of innovation transferring. Not all tribes could accurately reproduce foreign carts, which they had a chance to look at only from the side. In addition, imitators could simply not have the necessary technologies for neat hole making and had to reinvent the cart in their own way.

Chain reaction

Confidently, we can only say that the timeline of the wheel started in the 4th millennium BCE. Then the spread of the wheel took on the character of a chain reaction. As soon as one tribe mastered it, the neighbors soon adopted the invention. The speed of this transmission was such that wheeled vehicles appeared within only a few centuries from Sumer to Switzerland, that is, by archaeological standards, simultaneously. The paucity of archaeological data does not allow us to determine the path of the wheel and creates the basis for a variety of conjectures and speculations.

A stone toy was found that looks like a tractor in 2011, in the city of Kiziltepe in the Turkish province of Mardin. Archaeologist Mesut Alp rashly dated his find to 5500 BCE and demanded to rewrite the history of the invention of the wheel. Not all colleagues agreed with him. The stumbling block was a cuneiform tablet about the sale of the garden found along with the toy. It is dated 2800 BCE. The museum workers wrote “5500-3000 BCE” on a plaque as a compromise.

Another case: the famous Russian archaeologist A.D. Rezepkin refuted the established idea of ​​the Middle Eastern origin of the wheel and he and his colleagues found the oldest wheel back in 1988 in a burial near the village of Novosvobodnaya in the Republic of Adygea. Rezepkin dates the find to the middle of the 4th millennium BCE (but other historians are skeptical of this data).

Egyptian tomb war wheel

It is widely believed that the Egyptians adopted the wheel from their neighbors only in the Second Intermediate Period (between the Middle and New Kingdoms), that is, in the 2nd millennium BCE. It began to be used by the nobility in chariots. Meanwhile, images of siege ladders on disc wheels have been found in the tomb of Kaemkhesit in Saqqara – 30 km south of Cairo, where the capital of Ancient Egypt, Memphis, was located. This burial belongs to the last, sixth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, that is, to the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE. However, no evidence of the use of wheels to move goods in the era of the Old Kingdom, when the largest pyramids were built, has not yet been found.

Flintback tracks

There was new evidence of an even earlier existence of wheeled transport. Archaeologists carried out excavations in the German settlement of Flintbeck from 1970 to the 1990s. The subject of interest was the megalithic cemeteries of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. One of the main features of the burial was discovered in 1989, it was a track that has remained since then in clay soil. Presumably, these are traces of a wheelbarrow or wagon that served to transport soil and stones during the construction of the megalith. This happened between 3650 and 3400 BCE. It is interesting that having discovered the oldest trace of the use of a wheeled cart, German researchers stated that the discovery could not affect the primacy of the Middle East in the invention of the wheel.

The use of the wheel and wagon as a working tool required centuries of improvement. Strong hubs and metal rims, shafts and clamps, фтв swivel front axles for carts appeared even before our era. Bearings, springs, rotary mechanisms, tires, brakes, alloy wheels, and more could be found closer to our time. Not only has new transport appeared over the past 5000 years but also the infrastructure for it: roads, rails, tunnels, and escalators.

All the evidence of the use of vehicles from the middle of the 4th millennium BCE played an important role in the wheel and axle history. Such artifacts were no longer unique in the next millennium. Wheeled carriages were rapidly spreading throughout Eurasia. Modern wheels have become the demonstration of the evolution of wheel timeline, as improved versions can be easily seen in today’s chair wheels and other furniture items.

Short questions/answers list

Question Answer
What were two early uses of the wheel? According to 2 available versions it was perceived as a part of the potter’s wheel and as a ring that was put on the spindle axis and served as a weighting agent.
How did the invention of the wheel change society? The invention of wheel influenced the history of mankind and gave impetus to scientific and technological progress. It had a huge impact on the development of means of transportation and transportation.
Why is the wheel important? Humanity uses of wheels from past to present because it helps to move around. There were no carts without carsand a person would have to carry all the burdens himself.
How did the invention of the wheel change society? Of course, only for the better.
What was a result of the invention of the wheel? The wheel invention contributed to the development of crafts and the transport sector. The wheel was used in a potter’s wheel, a mill, a spinning wheel, and a lathe. Water wheels were used in irrigation facilities, factories, mines, and so on. The invention of the wheel gave impetus to the development of science in general. So, it is used in astrolabe and other scientific instruments. Gears are widely used in mechanics.
What year was the wheel invented? The oldest examples date back to the middle of the 4th millennium BCE (3500 BCE).
When was the wheel introduced to North America? It was never put to practical use before the 16th century but, of course, it was introduced much earlier.
What was life before the wheel? People do everything by themseves. The wheel made the transportation of goods faster and more efficient, especially when attached to horse-drawn chariots and wagons.

Despite the fact that people know much about the wheel origin, there are still a lot of questions without answers. Moreover, history is changeable and archeological findings can have a great influence on the whole picture of the world.

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