Technology is developing at a remarkable pace. Over time, every “latest” technology withers away like autumn leaves, and newer tech gadgets take their place like blossoming flowers in spring. Many complex technologies that facilitate our lives have reached their current state from humble beginnings. One of these technologies that seem pretty mundane today is a wheel.
From vehicles taking us to our destinations multiple times each day to airplanes flying high in the sky and from horse carriages taking goods to different places to the spinning wheel spinning cotton to a thread, everything that moves today is because of the seemingly ordinary invention—the wheel.
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 BCE. 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.
Evolution of the wheel
Back then, humans used logs to move large loads around. The main problem with this method of transportation was that many rollers were required, and care was required to ensure that the rollers stayed true to their course. One theory as to how this obstacle was overcome suggests a platform, or sledge, was built with cross-bars fitted to the underside, thereby preventing the rollers from slipping out from under the load. Two rollers would be utilized, with two cross-bars for each roller, one fore and the other aft of the roller.
Researchers believe that the wheelbarrow first appeared in classical Greece, sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., then sprung up in China four centuries later and ended up in medieval Europe, perhaps by way of Byzantium or the Islamic world. Although wheelbarrows were expensive to purchase, they could pay for themselves in just three or four days in terms of labor savings.
The camel saddle was invented between 500 and 100 BC, and camels overtook the wheel as the standard mode of transportation in the Middle East and Northern Africa between the second and sixth centuries AD. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the conditions of the roads declined, leading to wheeled transport being abandoned in favor of more traditional mounts.
Uses of the wheel
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 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 fibres 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.