It seems so simple a concept to our modern minds. After all, a wheel is only a round object and it’s now so ubiquitous that it’s hardly given any thought. Without it, other great leaps forward, including the Industrial Revolution, would not have been launched.
But one of the great mysteries of mankind’s tenure on Planet Earth is why it took so long for the wheel to be invented.
Cavemen probably took into their hands a piece of smooth round wood and rolled it about for their amusement. In other cultures, wheels were attached to animals made of pottery or other materials, such as the pre-Columbian cultures of Central America. In fact, numerous wheeled “toys” — usually dogs, but also monkeys and deer — made of pottery have been found at archaeological sites in Central America that go back in time to AD 100. What is particularly amazing is that other than being used to propel toy animals, wheels were not put to practical use as a means of transporting goods in the Americas until the arrival of Europeans. A llama can be hitched to a wagon, but the Incas only used them as pack animals.
Then again, why not only a wheeled toy? Every parent, ancient or modern, knows about a tiny toddler’s fascination and enjoyment when rolling a wheeled toy across a floor. Young lads burst into a frenzy of excitement when they launch their Hot Wheels cars down a ramp.
The creation of the wheel is undoubtedly the single greatest invention of all time. In recognition of its significance, we invariably refer to another creation as, “The best invention since the wheel.”
The wheel is uniquely an invention of mankind, as it doesn’t appear in nature, which has usually spurred on bursts of creativity. For example, the invention of the airplane is the result of observing birds gliding.
Actually, it took a great leap in mechanical understanding to come up with a practical wheel, which didn’t occur until about 3500 BC. Before that time, mankind had already manufactured other complex creations, such as sewing needles, woven cloth, rope, basket weaving, boats and musical instruments.
In a recent Life’s Little Mysteries (TechMediaNetwork Company) article entitled, Why It Took so Long to Invent the Wheel, Natalie Wolchover interviewed David Anthony, a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College, to explain the apparent mystery.
The author of The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, said that it took a stroke of brilliance — one of history’s eureka moments — to come up with the wheel-and-axle concept. As well, the manufacture of a wheel accompanied by an axle was also a difficult task.
Anthony told Wolchover that to affix an axle to revolving wheels required the ends of the axles to be nearly perfectly smooth and round, as did the holes in the centre of the wheel. The axles then had to fit snuggly inside the wheels’ holes, but not too snuggly since they had to freely rotate.
Furthermore, the success of the structure depended upon the size of the axle. A narrow one may reduce friction, but it cannot hold a heavy load. A balance between axle size and load-bearing was required, added Anthony.
“They solved this problem by making the earliest wagons quite narrow,” Anthony told Wolchover, “so they had short axles, which made it possible to have an axle that wasn’t very thick.”
The wheel-and-axle concept apparently was an all or nothing structure — it couldn’t be developed in stages. People may have used rollers to move heavy objects for millennia before inventing the wheel, but attaching a wheel to an axle was too complex a concept to have been a gradual undertaking, according to Anthony.
He explained that whoever invented the system used wide slabs of wood from thick-trunked trees in order to carve large, round wheels using metal tools. Metal tools were also used to chisel fine-fitted holes and axles.
“It was the carpentry that probably delayed the invention until 3500 BC or so, because it was only after about 4000 BC that cast copper chisels and gouges became common in the Near East.”
There are many artistic portrayals of wheeled vehicles in Ancient Sumeria where copper tools were used and the first great city-states known to history arose. But the Sumerians first created potter’s wheels before they used wheels for transportation. With their ability to manufacture wagons, the Sumerians streamlined trade and commerce, allowing traders and merchants to transport larger quantities of goods.
It didn’t take long before the Sumerians realized modified wagons could be used as war chariots. Eannatum, the king of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash (c. 2500 BC), is shown in the Stele of Vultures riding in a chariot into battle against Ush, the ruler of Umma, whom he soundly defeated. The earlier Standard of Ur also depicts the Sumerian development of the chariot. These chariots were primarily four-wheeled vehicles drawn by domesticated wild asses called onagers. The chariots were very heavy and cumbersome and were probably used for battlefield transportation rather than attack vehicles.
There is some controversy about whether or not the Sumerians should be credited with inventing the wheel, but there is no doubt that the archaeological evidence shows that they were the earliest people known to have used the wheel — either for throwing pottery and for transportation.
Askop Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, believes that miniature models of wheeled wagons found in the Eurasian Steppes show an earlier association of the Tripolye culture in what is now modern-day Ukraine. He said they may look like children’s toys, but he thinks they were representations of the real thing.
There is apparently a linguistic reason to believe the Tripolye people created the first wheeled vehicles — words associated with wheels and wagons derive from that Proto-Indo-European culture. The English word wheel comes from the Old English word hweol, hweogol, from Proto-Germanic hwehwlan, hwegwlan, from Proto-Indo-European kwekwlo. Wagon has been in English usage from the 1520s, and is derived from Middle Dutch wagen, waghen, from Proto-Germanic wagnaz, (Old English wægn) from Proto-Indo-European woghnos, from wegh- “to carry, to move.”
But words don’t necessarily signal a full-blown practical invention and nor does a model (toy).
Who invented the wheel? No one really knows the exact person nor exactly where it arose first, but whoever did made an invaluable contribution to the advancement of mankind.