Invention of the Wheel


by Masoud Sharifi

Masoud Sharifi is a PhD candidate in Mechanical engineering at Polytechnique School of Montreal

Masoud Sharifi is a PhD candidate in Mechanical engineering at Polytechnique School of Montreal

The wheel is one of the main components of the wheel and axle which is one of the six simple machines. Wheels, in conjunction with axles, allow heavy objects to be moved easily facilitating movement or transportation while supporting a load, or performing labor in machines. Wheels are also used for other purposes, such as a ship's wheel, steering wheel, potter's wheel and flywheel.



No wheels exist in nature.

Throughout history, most inventions were inspired by the natural world. The idea for the pitchfork and table fork came from forked sticks; the airplane from gliding birds. But the wheel is one hundred percent homo sapien innovation. As Michael LaBarbera—a professor of biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago—wrote in a 1983 issue of The American Naturalist, only bacterial flagella, dung beetles and tumbleweeds come close. And even they are “wheeled organisms” in the loosest use of the term, since they use rolling as a form of locomotion.

The wheel was a relative latecomer.

We tend to think that inventing the wheel was item number two on our to-do list after learning to walk upright. But several significant inventions predated the wheel by thousands of years: sewing needles, woven cloth, rope, basket weaving, boats and even the flute.

The first wheels were not used for transportation.

The invention of the wheel falls into the late Neolithic, and may be seen in conjunction with other technological advances that gave rise to the early Bronze Age. Note that this implies the passage of several wheel-less millennia even after the invention of agriculture and of pottery, during the Aceramic Neolithic (9500–6500 BCE).

4500–3300 BCE: Chalcolithic, invention of the potter's wheel; earliest wooden wheels (disks with a hole for the axle); earliest wheeled vehicles, domestication of the horse

3300–2200 BCE: Early Bronze Age

2200–1550 BCE: Middle Bronze Age, invention of the spoked wheel and the chariot

Evidence indicates they were created to serve as potter’s wheels around 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia—300 years before someone figured out to use them for chariots. The ancient Greeks invented Western philosophy… and the wheelbarrow.

Researchers believe that the wheelbarrow first appeared in classical Greece, sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., then sprung up in China four centuries later and ended up in medieval Europe, perhaps by way of Byzantium or the Islamic world. Although wheelbarrows were expensive to purchase, they could pay for themselves in just 3 or 4 days in terms of labor savings. Art historian Andrea Matthies has found comical illustrations, one from the 15th century, showing members of the upper classes being pushed to hell in a wheelbarrow—quite possibly the origin for the expression “to hell in a handbasket.”

The earliest wheels in North America were used for toys.

In the 1940s, archaeologists unearthed wheeled toys—ceramic dogs and other animals with wheels as legs—in pre-Colombian layers of sediment in Vera Cruz, Mexico. The indigenous peoples of North America, however, would not use wheels for transportation until the arrival of European settlers.

Roulette means “small wheel” in French. The origin of the gambling game roulette is a bit hazy. Some sources say Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician, invented it in his attempts to create a perpetual motion device. But what’s more commonly accepted is that roulette is an 18th century French creation that combined several existing games.



[2] "American Heritage Dictionary Entry: wheel". Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

[3] "wheel". Online Etymology Dictionary.