The Wheel is one of the most fundamental inventions we use in our everyday lives. Invented sometime between 4500 - 3300 BCE during the Chalcolithic era, the wheel gave rise to everything from transportation to modern day machinery and almost everything in between.
The idea of the wheel may have been influenced by nature, as many inventions are. The closest evidence to a wheel in nature is the home of a Dung Beetle. Dung beetles lay their eggs in dung and transport it by rolling it into a ball. Another wheel found in nature is the tumbleweed.
The wheel on its own, while promising, is not very useful. Much like a doughnut, its most important feature is the hole in the center. If it wasn't suitable for attaching a stable platform by using an axle, the wheel would be nothing but a cylinder rolling on its edge. Versions may have been used in ancient Egypt to move large objects, however, they didn't allow for extended use or for the method of transportation.
The idea of adding an axle isn't a simple one. For the system to work, the wheel must rotate freely around the axle. This is achieved by fitting the axle directly in the center of the wheel to maximize continuity during motion. In addition, the axle and the hole alignment must be perpendicular to reduce friction. Furthermore, the axle should remain as thin as possible to reduce its surface area while still being able to support the load.
From here, the only friction to overcome is that between the inner wheel and the axle. The smoother the inner surface of the wheel, and the outer surface of the axle, the less friction the system has to overcome.
Not only do all these parameters have to be met for this structure to work, but all at the same time. It may be for this reason that such a simple concept took so long to gain traction.
A Brief History
Where the wheel originated is a mystery, but its use spread fast throughout Eurasia and the Middle East. The earliest images of wheeled carts surfaced in Poland, suggesting the region may have seen some of its first use.
Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, suggests that the wheel originated with the Tripolye people of modern-day Ukraine. This is based on the fact that the word 'wheel' is derived from their language.
There is evidence to suggest that the wheel was first used for potter's wheels in Mesopotamia, 300 years before it was adapted to fit the chariot.
The wheelbarrow, however, is believed to have first appeared in ancient Greece between 600 - 400 BCE. China followed sometime later and it eventually found its way to medieval Europe. Although the wheelbarrow was a high priced commodity at the time, it would pay for itself within a few days as it greatly reduced the laborers' workload.
Archaeologists in Vera Cruz, Mexico, unearthed ceramic toys in the form of little animals. The animals were fitted with wheels instead of legs so children could push them along. However, the region never utilized the wheel for transportation until the arrival of the European settlers.
In the Middle East and North Africa, where there is vast desert land, the camel was still the preferred mode of transport right up until 600 A.D. This could be as a result of the hostile region not being able to support thin wooden wheels without them sinking in the sand. Richard Bulliet gives several possible reasons in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel. Middle Eastern societies continued to make use of wheels for practices such as irrigation, milling, and pottery.
It is not surprising that after all of this, the basic design of something as robust as the wheel hasn't changed in over 6000 years.
The wheel wasn't always used for locomotion, in fact, attaching a wheel to a cart only came about 300 years later. The initial wheels were made for the purpose of milling and were constructed out of stone. Some wheels were even used in a potter's lathe.
Here are some more facts about the wheel.
Wheel of Fortune
The wheel of fortune is not just an American television game show. In fact, it is a concept in medieval philosophy that symbolizes fate. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna who spins the wheel to decide the fates and misfortunes of mortals. Fortuna is often depicted as a blindfolded woman spinning a giant wheel.
In medieval times, the wheel was also used for various torture treatments. Some gory punishments included strapping a lawbreaker to the spiked rim of a large wheel and then rolling it across the ground. Others included rolling smaller wheels against the bones of an enemy. Either way, I think the evolution of the wheel has been for the better.
Perpetual Motion Machines
The concept of perpetual motion machines has been around for centuries. It is the holy grail of science, and if it were to be achieved, it would produce free energy once it is set in motion.
The most common design for a perpetual motion device involves a wheel of some sort, often overbalance so that it continually rotates using gravity as the driving force. However, these devices contradict the first two laws of thermodynamics. That states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed in an isolated system and that the entropy in the system always increases.
There is a concept in television called aliasing. This is when a rotating wheel appears to be spinning backward in a movie. Film cameras work by capturing a series of still images, they then play these images in sequence at roughly 50 frames per second. This is enough to fool our brains into thinking that the image is moving. However, if the wheel is moving faster than the frame rate, the rotation surpasses the image capturing frequency.
For example: if a spoke of the wheel is at the 12 o'clock position in the first frame, and then in the second frame that spoke moves almost a full rotation to the 11 o'clock position. Your brain will interpret that as moving anti-clockwise as it cannot determine what is happening between frames. At the right frequency, a strobe light or even a fluorescent lamp can have the same effect.
Ever wondered where the term fifth wheel comes from? A fifth wheel was one that extended from the front axle of a carriage to prevent it from tipping over. Much like a drag racer has on its rear. Most of the time it was never used and landed up being redundant, hence, by calling someone or something 'the fifth wheel' you are referring to them as unnecessary.
Written by Terry Berman