Though history will ultimately show that the distinction belongs to the toaster oven, the wheel is often regarded as mankind’s greatest invention. If nothing else, the device paved the way for most other major inventions, making it the Citizen Kane of human mechanical innovations.
And, like that interminably boring yet highly influential film, the wheel seems like it’s just been around forever—never really invented, just a part of the fabric of the world since time immemorial. But deep down inside, you know it wasn’t just magically birthed upon the Earth—it had to come from somewhere. Here’s the skinny on how the wheel came to be.
Step 1: Wheel; Step 2: ???; Step 3: Fortune
Agriculture and pottery, two industries that can benefit greatly from the use of wheels, were “invented” during the Aceramic Neolithic period (circa 9500 to 6500 BCE). However, the wheel itself was not actually developed until several thousand years later, during the late Neolithic, roughly 4500 to 3300 BCE. The invention of the wheel is considered one of the leading factors leading to the rise of the Bronze Age.
Early precursors to the potter’s wheel were developed in the Middle East in the 5th millennium BCE. However, these stone or clay wheels were not true, free-spinning potter’s wheels and required considerable effort to turn. The earliest evidence of a true potter’s wheel comes from Mesopotamia circa 4000 BCE; the oldest surviving example has been dated to roughly 3100 BCE.
The earliest evidence of wheels being used for vehicles comes from the latter end of the 4th millennium BCE. Wheeled vehicles were developed nigh simultaneously by the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, the Maykop culture of northern Caucasus, and the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of central Europe. The oldest surviving example of a wheel-and-axle vehicle comes from Stare Gmaine, in Slovenia; it is dated to roughly 3340 BCE.
The earliest visual depictions of wheeled vehicles come from the Halaf culture, circa 6500 BCE, but as there is no evidence of Halafians actually using wheeled vehicles, it’s probably just the result of some hippie painter getting a little crazy with the ol’ artistic license.
Certain evidence suggests that the Ancient Chinese developed wheeled vehicles as early as 2000 BCE. There is definitive evidence of the wheel’s use in China circa 1200 BCE, when the chariot was introduced to the region.
The oldest surviving evidence of the wheel in Britain was discovered in early 2016. A large, wooden wheel measuring roughly one meter in diameter was discovered at the Must Farm archaeological site in East Anglia, and has been dated to roughly 1100 BCE. Additional artefacts uncovered near the wheel, including a hub and a horse’s spine, suggest that the wheel was part of a horse-drawn cart. Who knew horses were into art?
Though the Olmecs and other Ancient American cultures developed wheel-like implements for children’s toys and other small-scale uses (historical examples date to roughly 1500 BCE), they did not use “full size” wheels for carts or other transportation uses. The prevailing theory as to why these cultures didn’t use wheeled vehicles is that they had no domesticated animals large or strong enough to pull carts. The only options were bison, which are notoriously difficult to domesticate, and llamas, which were not really used outside of the Andes Mountains.
Beginning in approximately 400 BCE, potter’s wheels and water wheels were used extensively in the Nubian region of Ancient Africa. Horse drawn chariots, an innovation derived from the Egyptians, were also common. Outside of Nubia, Ethiopia, and Somalia, the wheel was little used in Africa until its “introduction” by Europeans in the 19th century CE.
Construction & Variations
The earliest wheels were wooden discs with holes in them for axles to pass through. Early man quickly discovered that a single horizontal slice of a tree is unsuitable for use as a wheel, as it lacks the appropriate structural strength; instead, longitudinally-derived boards were rounded out to form circles.
These early wheels generally fell into one of two types during the Neolithic period: “circumalpine,” in which the wheel and axle rotate together; and “Baden,” in which the axle remains stationary. Spoked wheels were invented more recently (circa 2000 BCE), and allowed for lighter and faster vehicles. Spoked-wheel war chariots were developed shortly after; iron-rimmed wheels were introduced by the Celts during the first millennium BCE.
From there, very little variation, modification, or innovation occurred until the late 19th century CE, when wire-spoked wheels and pneumatic tires were developed.