TECH & SCIENCE

Wangaratta Chronicle - North East Regional Extra - - FRONT PAGE - with CHRIS

IT’s fair to say that one of mankind’s great­est in­ven­tions - that of the hum­ble wheel has been taken for granted. If the av­er­age per­son was asked, it’s a likely bet that they couldn’t be­gin to ex­plain the ori­gin of the wheel, yet ev­ery en­tre­pre­neur and their dog is quick to claim that they have cre­ated the best in­ven­tion since this mirac­u­lous method of mo­tion. To these trumped up mer­chants I give a de­ri­sive guf­faw, and to you, dear reader, I would elu­ci­date some en­light­en­ing facts sur­round­ing this feat of en­gi­neer­ing.

Straight from the cog­wheels of the hu­man mind

Most early in­ven­tions of hu­man­ity could trace their ori­gins to nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. The ma­nip­u­la­tion of fire is traced back to early hu­mans ob­serv­ing light­ning strikes, the axe came from nat­u­ral sharp stones, medicine from con­sum­ing nat­u­ral grown flora, and pitch­forks from forked sticks. Even the much later in­ven­tion of the aero­plane came from ob­serv­ing birds in flight. The wheel, how­ever, is truly set apart from these other in­ven­tions, as there are sim­ply no wheels ob­serv­able in na­ture - with the loose ex­cep­tion of rounded rocks and logs. Thus, the wheel is con­sid­ered a di­ver­gence in hu­man in­ven­tion - from im­prov­ing upon what na­ture al­ready pro­vided in a rudi­men­tary form, to ac­tively chang­ing the nat­u­ral world to bet­ter ac­com­mo­date us.

The wheel was late to the party

Con­trary to pop­u­lar de­pic­tions, the wheel was a rel­a­tively late in­ven­tion. The old­est known ex­am­ple of the wheel dates back to 3500 B.C. dur­ing the Bronze Age, and was dis­cov­ered by ar­chae­ol­o­gists ex­ca­vat­ing a site in what was then Me­sopotamia (West Asia). By this time, hu­man be­ings were al­ready plant­ing crops, herd­ing do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals, had some form of so­cial hi­er­ar­chy, and had al­ready in­vented weav­ing, rope, and boats. One of the rea­sons why the wheel was in­vented only at this point in his­tory is due to the fact that metal tools were needed to chisel fine-fit­ted holes and axles. This leads to the next reason – the wheel was not just a cylin­der rolling on its edge. It was a cylin­der that was con­nected to a sta­ble, sta­tion­ary plat­form. This wheel-axle con­cept was a stroke of genius, but mak­ing it was a chal­lenge. The ends of the axle, as well as the holes in the cen­tre of the wheels had to be nearly per­fectly smooth and round.

The first wheel was laid flat, not on it’s edge

Given the sheer com­plex­ity of the wheel, axle, plat­form com­bi­na­tion, it’s not re­ally sur­pris­ing that the first wheel was not used for trans­port at all, but as a ro­tat­ing plat­form for pot­tery mak­ing. The first wheel-as-trans­port im­agery was found in Poland, and the first axle fit­ted wheel, known as the Ljubl­jana Marshes Wheel, was dated at 3150 B.C. - sev­eral cen­turies af­ter the pot­ter’s wheel was dated.

Some­one ac­tu­ally man­aged to rein­vent the wheel

I had to in­clude this last fact for the pure amuse­ment fac­tor. John Keogh, a free­lance patent lawyer in Aus­tralia, sub­mit­ted a patent ap­pli­ca­tion for a “cir­cu­lar trans­porta­tion fa­cil­i­ta­tion de­vice” in May 2001, shortly af­ter a new patent sys­tem was in­tro­duced in Aus­tralia. He wanted to prove that the cheap, stream­lined sys­tem, which al­lows in­ven­tors to draft a patent on­line with­out the help of a lawyer, was flawed. His “wheel” was is­sued a patent. Only an Aussie could per­form a feat so si­mul­ta­ne­ously stupid and clever.

with Chris Fe­b­vre NEM GRAPHIC ARTIST cfeb­vre@ne­me­dia.com.au

ROLLIN’ ROLLIN’: The Ljubl­jana Marshes Wheel is the ear­li­est and largest axle-fit­ted wheel to date. The aperture is square, which means that the axle spun with the wheel.

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