How the Advent of the Wheel led to the Creation of Thousands of Modern Inventions

Think of a piece of technology you couldn’t live without – perhaps your car or your smartphone, or maybe a laptop or microwave… It’s a good bet that whichever item you were thinking of it simply could not exist if it were not for the humble wheel. It’s difficult to imagine a world without the wheel, and yet it isn’t as old as you might think…

We know that the Egyptians recognized the utility of rollers, having used them to assist in moving the enormous stones needed for the construction of the pyramids. The trouble with rollers is that they constantly need replacing as the object being transported moves forward. The solution to this is the axle, and whilst that may seem obvious today there is no evidence of a wheel and axle being used together before roughly 4,000BC.

It was around this time that a resourceful potter employed the combination to create the earliest known potter’s wheel. Coincidentally, the first known full set of wheels attached to a rolling object were made of clay too. The wheels were attached to a small figurine, creating what appears to be a children’s toy. Once again, the evidence we have found so far indicates that it took several hundred more years before the concept was expanded on with the invention of the first full-size wagon.

The Wagon: Sparking a Societal Revolution

The wheel had now found its first natural home – wheeled transport. This happened around 3,500BC, and despite the slow pace of life at the time the idea managed to spread across the globe extremely quickly. Full-size carts have been found all across the Middle East and Central Europe, and these examples have been dated by archaeologists to within just a couple of hundred years of each other.

It’s important to remember that this was at a time when cultures were extremely insular, and people rarely mixed with other races. Despite this, the usefulness of the wheeled cart was such that anyone who saw it was immediately keen to copy the idea for their own use. This explains why there are significant differences between many of the early artifacts that have been found – they were probably built to a specification given by someone who had only briefly seen such a cart, without any significant time to inspect it or learn how it was put together.

From 3500BC to The Modern Wheel

The earliest wheels were constructed of solid wood, and it was roughly another 1,500 years before the imagination and tools evolved to the point that spoked wooden wheels became possible. A spoked wheel weighs far less than a solid wheel, reducing friction with the ground and therefore increasing the speed that the cart can be pulled.

After another millennium, perhaps around 1,000BC, the first iron rims were found on Celtic chariots. This improvement dramatically improved the strength and reliability of the wheel which was a huge advantage for carts being used in warfare. This design, a wooden spoked wheel with an outer iron rim, worked so well that there were few changes made to the design of wheels after this until well into the modern era.

At the very beginning of the 19th century, an inventor named G.F. Bauer patented the first wire-tension spoked wheel, a concept that is still commonly used on bicycles to this day. This was followed by the invention of the pneumatic tire, patented in 1845 by R.W. Thompson. Rubber tires were far superior to iron rims, enabling carts to be pulled much faster and smoother than before. Another man, Scottish veterinarian John Dunlop further improved the idea in 1888 when he created a soft, strong rubber which quickly became standard on bicycles and carts of the time.

How the Wheel Enabled Further Inventions

The wheel and axle concept has been used in the creation of an endless number of further inventions over the centuries since those first wooden carts. Technology simply could not have developed the way it has without the wheel. Here are a few examples of the ubiquitous utility of the humble wheel:

  • The cogwheel – The key component of gearing systems essential to automobiles and industrial machinery.
  • The waterwheel – A machine used to convert the energy of flowing water into useful forms of power.
  • The propeller – A set of rotating blades forming a helical spiral to create thrust, as used on airplanes.
  • The turbine – used in a huge number of devices but especially for the creation of energy in power plants.

This is just a small selection of the most important inventions that would be impossible to build without the wheel, and there are thousands if not millions more.

Something the Wheel Could NOT Do…

In 1655 a French physicist and inventor named Blaise Pascal were attempting to create a perpetual motion machine using the wheel. Pascal had seen many previous attempts at building such a machine and felt sure that he could do better. Unfortunately for Pascal, we now know that perpetual motion machines are impossible to create because they violate the first law of thermodynamics, but this fact was not yet understood at that time.

Fortunately for Pascal, he did manage to create something useful during his attempts – the roulette wheel. Whilst his early version of the wheel was primitive, it is still recognizable as an ancestor of the modern game. Roulette is now one of the most popular casino games in the world, and the introduction of cheap home broadband in the early 21st century has allowed fans of the game to enjoy roulette with a live dealer from the comfort of their own home.

Who would have thought that something which seems extremely simple and basic would end up becoming the cornerstone of the majority of modern technology? As our digital world continues evolving at a breakneck pace it will be fascinating to see which new inventions the wheel enables in the future!