TECH & SCIENCE
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.
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.