Past and Curious
THIS MONTH: IMAGINE IF CARS STILL USED WOODEN WHEELS. FUN RUNS WOULD HAVE TAKEN DAYS
hile nobody knows who invented the wheel and when, an early record of its appearance dates back to the late Neolithic Age. According to archaeological evidence, early man had used wheels in various applications. Stone wheels were made to grind granules and seeds. Pottery wheels were used to mold clay into bowls and vessels. Wooden wheels were attached to carts for transporting agricultural products. Spoke wheels were attached to chariots used in warfare.
The first wooden wheels were likely shaped from flat pieces of wood. Horizontally sliced wood from a tree trunk was ideal for this because the direction of the grain would cause the wheel to split and fall apart. Many carts with wheels from solid pieces of wood are still used in remote places.
Walter Hancock invented a spoke wheel made from wood parts in 1830. While it was lighter than a solid wheel, it had shortcomings. The wood shrank and the joints loosened at high speeds; a bucket of water was needed to cool them down. The spokes also tended to splinter if the wheel hit a deep pothole. Cars built from the 1880s until the ’20s used wooden spoke wheels.
In their search for lightness and strength, early bicycle designers used wheels with hubs suspended by wire from the top of the wheel. Early examples were not reliable. In 1870, James Starley and William Hillman fitted the wire spokes at a tangent to the hub. As a result, the spokes were only in tension and never in bending under all load conditions. This became the universal design for bicycle wheels.
Wire wheels were used in cars by the ’20s. Designed to handle heavier load and road impact, these were used until they became passé in the mid-’30s. Normally, the center hub cap bore the logo of the car make. With the arrival of more steel-wheeled vehicles in the late ’30s, center caps were replaced with midsize chrome hub caps and rings. Larger chrome hub cap that entirely covered the wheel were introduced in 1946. Eventually, plastic hub caps appeared in the mid-’80s.
Steel became a major building material during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. One of the side products was the pressed steel wheel, initially used on steam locomotives, then on commercial vehicles from 1910. Later named the disc steel wheel, it became the standard wheel of cars and trucks today.
Developments in metallurgy and casting since the ’40s made possible the production of light and strong wheels from alloy-based raw materials. First used as airplane wheels, these were applied to sports cars in the ’50s and to cars in the ’60s. They gradually arrived in the country in the early ’70s. The demand for ‘mag wheels’ convinced local manufacturers like Rota and Limbos to introduce domestic versions in the early ’80s.
Later on, unique wheel designs could be carved from solid billets using computeroperated laser cutters. Known as billet wheels, these are preferred for high-end or customized cars, trucks and SUVs.
Recently, Goodyear USA presented a concept in the application of spherically designed tires on magnetically levitated wheels. The technology is still beyond everyone’s comprehension. Current car manufacturers might even find it too advance and expensive for immediate application.