Past and Cu­ri­ous

THIS MONTH: IMAG­INE IF CARS STILL USED WOODEN WHEELS. FUN RUNS WOULD HAVE TAKEN DAYS

Top Gear (Philippines) - - Contents - RICHARD WIL­HELM B. RAGODON

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.

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