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History of Engineering: The Wheel

  • by: Adrian Mansfield
  • On: 11, Jan 2019
2 min read

The wheel is frequently cited as the most pivotal invention of mankind, allowing for further travel, the transportation of goods, and eventually motorsport.

The History of The Wheel

We tend to think that we stood up, walked out of our caves, discovered fire, and then invented the wheel. Several other crucial inventions actually predate the wheel, including rope, basket weaving, and boats.

While the concept of the wheel may seem simple to us today, the engineering required to make one thousands of years ago was actually very complex. The wheel must have an axle that it rotates around. This is achieved by fitting the axle directly in the centre of the wheel to maximize potential 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, hence why the invention of the wheel was such a revolutionary moment.

Evidence suggests the wheel was in use around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. The oldest wooden wheels have been discovered in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and date back to 3200 BC. It’s believed that they were first used for chariots around this time.

The concept of the wheel is present in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, as the wheel of fortune belonging to the Goddess of Fate Fortuna.

The Egyptians were the first to use the spoked wheel in 2000 BC, allowing for much faster speed. From there, the wheel was largely unimproved until the 19th Century when Robert William Thompson invented the pneumatic tyre, a rubber wheel using compressed air, which would pave the way for the tyres we use today.

Uses of The Wheel

The wheelbarrow was invented in Greece at some point between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, appeared in China four centuries later, until eventually ending up in Europe after making its way through the Islamic world.

The camel saddle was invented between 500 and 100 BC, and camels overtook the wheel as the standard mode of transportation in the Middle East and Northern Africa between the second and sixth centuries AD. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the conditions of the roads declined leading to wheeled transport being abandoned in favour of more traditional mounts.

However in subsequent centuries the wheel found a resurgence thanks to exploration expeditions over large parts of the world.

One man actually did succeed in re-inventing the wheel. John Keogh, a patent lawyer in Australia, submitted a patent application for a ‘circular transportation facilitation device’ in 2001, just after Australia had introduced a new streamlined patent system which operated without oversight by trained patent lawyers. His ‘invention’ was successfully patented, thus proving his point that more work was needed on the system.

Read about the history of the submarine, or learn about historical figures in engineering like Leonardo Da Vinci and Imhotep.

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