The Invention of the Wheel

Potter's hands making bowl on pottery wheel.

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The oldest wheel found in archeological excavations was discovered in what was Mesopotamia and is believed to be over 5,500 years old. It was not used for transportation, though, but rather as a potter's wheel. The combination of the wheel and axle made possible early forms of transportation, which became more sophisticated over time with the development of other technologies.

Key Takeaways: The Wheel

• The earliest wheels were used as potter's wheels. They were invented in Mesopotamia about 5,500 years ago.

• The wheelbarrow—a simple cart with a single wheel—was invented by the ancient Greeks.

• Though wheels are mainly used for transportation, they are also used to navigate, spin thread, and generate wind and hydroelectric power.

When Was the Wheel Invented?

Though often thought of as one of the earliest inventions, the wheel actually arrived after the invention of agriculture, boats, woven cloth, and pottery. It was invented sometime around 3,500 B.C. During the transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, the very earliest wheels were made of wood, with a hole in the core for the axle. The wheel is unique because, unlike other early human inventions such as the pitchfork—which was inspired by forked sticks—it is not based on anything in nature.

The Inventor of the Wheel

The wheel is not like the telephone or the lightbulb, a breakthrough invention that can be credited to a single (or even several) inventors. There is archaeological evidence of wheels dating back to at least 5,500 years ago, but no one knows exactly who invented them. Wheeled vehicles appeared later in various areas across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The invention of the wheelbarrow—a one-wheeled cart used to transport goods and raw materials—is usually credited to the ancient Greeks. However, earlier evidence of wheeled carts has been found in Europe and China.

Wheel and Axle

Bronocice pot
The Bronocice pot is the earliest depiction of a wheel and axle.  Silar/Wiki Commons

The wheel alone, without any further innovation, would not have done much for mankind. Rather, it was the combination of the wheel and axle that made early forms of transportation possible, including carts and chariots. The Bronocice pot, a piece of pottery discovered in Poland and dating to at least 3370 B.C., is believed to feature the earliest depiction of a wheeled vehicle. The evidence suggests that small wagons or carts, likely drawn by cattle, were in use in Central Europe by this time in human history.

The first carts featured wheels and axles that turned together. Wooden pegs were used to fix the sledge so that when it rested on the rollers it did not move. The axle turned in between the pegs, allowing the axle and wheels to create all the movement. Later, the pegs were replaced with holes carved into the cart frame, and the axle was placed through the holes. This made it necessary for the larger wheels and thinner axle to be separate pieces. The wheels were attached to both sides of the axle.

Finally, the fixed axle was invented, wherein the axle did not turn but was solidly connected to the cart frame. The wheels were fitted onto the axle in a way that allowed them to freely rotate. Fixed axles made for stable carts that could turn corners better. By this time the wheel can be considered a complete invention.

Following the invention of the wheel, the Sumerians invented the sledge, a device consisting of a flat base mounted on a pair of runners with curved ends. The sledge was useful for transporting cargo over smooth terrain; however, the Sumerians quickly realized that the device would be more efficient once it was mounted on rollers.

Modern Uses of the Wheel

Mill with a water wheel built on a river surrounded by trees.
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While the basic function of the wheel is unchanged, modern wheels are much different from the simple wooden wheels of the past. Innovations in materials science have made possible all kinds of tires for bicycles, cars, motorcycles, and trucks—including tires designed for rough terrain, ice, and snow.

While primarily used for transportation, the wheel also has other applications. Watermills, for example, use water wheels—large structures with a series of blades along the rim—to generate hydropower. In the past, watermills powered textile mills, sawmills, and gristmills. Today, similar structures called turbines are used to generate wind and hydroelectric power.

The spinning wheel is another example of how the wheel can be used. This device, invented in India over 2,500 years ago, was used to spin thread from natural fibers such as cotton, flax, and wool. The spinning wheel was eventually replaced by the spinning jenny and the spinning frame, more sophisticated devices that also incorporate wheels.

The gyroscope is a navigational instrument that consists of a spinning wheel and a pair of gimbals. Modern versions of this tool are used in compasses and accelerometers.