The Wheel: A Turnaround in History

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Nope, it wasn’t a precocious ape that invented the wheel, as some of us might have thought after watching that iconic scene in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Although several civilizations, including the Incas and Aztecs, managed to develop complex cultures and civilizations without ever utilizing a single rotating disk, the wheel is possibly the greatest mechanical invention in humanity’s history.

Before there were wheels, men were subject to back breaking and laborious work. Pack animals, such as the donkey, were not domesticated until around 4000 B.C., so sheer manpower was the primary means of transport for stone slabs, lumber and other construction materials.

The first true working wheel ever discovered by archeologists was believed to have been invented in Ancient Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. It was used as a potter’s wheel. Another 300 years would pass before the wheel became used a means of transporting goods.

One theory states that there were stages in the development of the wheel. Initially, early man discovered that by inserting rollers of similar sizes, such as logs, under a heavy object made them easier to move.

This tiresome activity required men to transfer the rollers from the back to the front constantly to maintain forward motion. It was very labor intensive.

To conserve manpower, the “sledge” was developed, a sled-like device with runners placed under a load to reduce drag. Used in combination with rollers, it required fewer hands to operate.

Although the sledge worked just fine on flat and wet surfaces, it didn’t fare well on rocky ground. Innovations such as grooved rollers helped a little with stability and allowed the sledge to cover a greater distance before the rollers needed to be moved.

From these initial designs and by combining the benefits of the earlier methods, early man streamlined the design into what we now know as the “wheel.”

Later civilizations such as the ancient Egyptians, East-Indians and Romans mastered the art of wheel making, creating a variety of wheels for different purposes.

For example, wheels with spokes were made for more maneuverable battle and hunting chariots. Sturdier wheels constructed from hard wood were used in wagons and coaches.

Over time, the waterwheel mechanism became pivotal in irrigation, while the grinding wheel took an important place in food production, allowing great quantities of grain to be processed at once. Notched wheels were used as gears and grooved wheels as pulleys.

Today, it is difficult to imagine a world without wheels. If cavemen could have envisioned all has been accomplished based on this single revolutionary tool, it certainly would have made their heads spin!

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