Dec 1, 2022 • 5M

Wheels: One Invention That 'Moved' the Human History

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Wheels are often thought to be one of the earliest inventions the homo sapiens ever made. But the oldest wheel discovered is only 5,500 years old, making it far younger than the invention of agriculture, boats, woven cloth, and pottery. The oldest wheel excavated, which dates back to 3500 BC, is associated with the Mesopotamian civilisation. But these wheels, invented by the Mesopotamians, were not used for transportation. Yes, wheels were not designed primarily for transportation purposes. Instead, it was used mainly as a potter's wheel. 

It is commonly believed that everything humans invented in their early stages of development was inspired by nature. But the case of the wheels was different. Unlike the inventions like the pitchfork, which was inspired by forked sticks, nothing in nature resembled this mighty invention. Instead, it was a unique idea that sparked in a wise homo sapiens' brain. The lack of inspiration in nature is believed to be the reason behind the 'late coming' of wheels. Humans began using wheels made of wood for making pottery between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. 

The wheel took hundreds of years to make its way onto the first chariots. The Greeks are believed to have used wheels for transportation for the first time. Archaeological evidence suggests that, between the 6th and 4th century BC, the Greeks invented one-wheeled wheelbarrows to transport goods and raw materials. Wheeled vehicles appeared later in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. However, earlier evidence of wheeled carts has also been found in China. There are also theories suggesting that China developed their wheels independently around 2800 BC.

The very earliest wheels were made of wood, with a hole in the core for the axle.

Before the invention of wheels, large and heavy objects were moved using some form of sledge. Archaeologists suggest that ancient people might have used some form of lubricant, like pig lard, with the sledges to move large rocks and other heavy objects. The same technique might have been used in constructing monuments like Stonehenge and the Pyramids.

A piece of pottery discovered in Poland named the Bronocice pot, dating to at least 3370 BCE, is believed to feature the earliest portrayal of a wheeled vehicle. Small wagons or carts, likely drawn by cattle, are portrayed in the pot, suggesting Central Europeans used wheeled vehicles by this time in human history. Archaeological evidence excavated from Mexico suggests that the indigenous peoples of North America used wheels to create toys as early as 1500 BC. However, until the arrival of European settlers, they have not used wheels for transportation. Egyptian people were the first to use wheels in Africa.

The very earliest wheels were made of wood, with a hole in the core for the axle. A wheel alone would not have significantly contributed to humans' development. The innovation of the axle enabled the wheels to be used for making pottery and transportation. Many scholars regard the invention of the axle as the greatest mechanical insight in the history of humankind.

The first carts had wheels and axles that rotated together. The sledge was fixed with wooden pegs so it wouldn't move while resting on the rollers. The axle rotated in between the pegs and moved along with the wheels. Later, the design got modified, and holes were carved into the cart frame to place the axle, replacing the pegs. The idea of fixed axles gave perfection to the carts, and the freely rotating wheels made movement much more effortless. Over time, the shape, size and functionality of wheels evolved, and modern wheels replaced old wooden ones.

Today a world without wheels is unimaginable. Though the primary function remains unchanged, wheels enabled humans to create much higher innovations that forever changed history. From transportation to entertainment and large-scale machinery, we can find wheels everywhere in our day-to-day life. So next time you see a wheel, let's thank that brilliant mind who came up with the 'world-changing' idea.

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