22 Jun The Biggest Human Invention: The Wheel (and the Axle)
Wheels are familiar to everyone and are used in many different ways. For this reason, they are a great starting point to show children the connection between school material and real-life historical heritage. With interesting data from history, we can show children how everyday things are intertwined with the topics they learn in school in the classes of maths, physics, science, environmental sciences, and many more.
In this article, we will give you some interesting facts about the invention of the wheel itself and the wheel with the axle and how this invention contributed to the development of human civilization.
A short summary of the modern use of wheels will follow.
How was the wheel invented?
The invention of the wheel is a crowning achievement of early humans. They have discovered that if they step on a round rock or log, are not stable as they are not affected by friction, instead, they roll away.
Why do human needs wheels?
The first devices used as rollers for transportation of loads were simply logs placed under a heavy object they wanted to carry. The Egyptians and Mesopotamians used rollers to carry heavy stones for building pyramids, and the Polynesians used rollers when building stone statues in the Easter Islands.
However, rollers are not extremely efficient, as they have to be replaced when they roll forward. Even if they are pinned underneath, friction makes them highly difficult to move.
Invention of the axle wheel
The invention that enabled the creation of efficient tools with wheels was the axle. This allowed it to move with less friction and without the load falling off of the log. Yet despite the roller’s antiquity, the archaeological data show that until approximately 6000 years ago, axle wheels were not known. The reason might be that humans were missing the example of the wheel with an axle in nature. Humans discovered a lot of tools with nature’s help, but the wheel with the axle is a purely human invention.
Surprisingly, the first wheel with an axle was not used for transportation as you might think, but as a pottery wheel. A stone potter’s wheel was found in the Sumerian city of Ur, in modern-day Iraq, dated to about 3129 BC, and fragments of wheel-thrown pottery around 5,500 years old have also been discovered, evidence that the use of the wheel is even older — at least for pottery. They are the first evidence that anyone anywhere recognized that the centre of a spinning disk is stationary and used it to their mechanical advantage.
There exists another great intellectual leap between the potter’s wheel and a set of wheels on a rolling object. The person who made the full-size wagon a few hundred years later stimulated the societal revolution. It was such a great and useful invention it went viral. Archaeologists have discovered full size carts from southern Iraq to Germany within a few hundred years of each other at a time when cultural barriers were particularly impermeable.
The «oldest wheel yet found» was discovered in 2002. A wooden wheel with its axle, used for transportation, was uncovered some 20 km southeast of Ljubljana in Slovenia. It was established that the wheel is between 5,100 and 5,350 years old. This makes it the oldest in the world which was used for transportation, and it belonged to a two-wheeled wagon. The wheel was carefully constructed from stringy and tough ash wood and the axle was created out of oak. Similar, but smaller and younger wheels have also been found at the crannog sites in Switzerland and Germany.
The oldest two-wheeled wagons archaeologists have found vary significantly in design. One has an axle fixed to the wheel as it does on a modern train, the other spins freely on the axle like on a modern car. It is suggested that at least some wagon builders copied what they saw from the distance without being able to inspect it closely. In addition, the first wheels and axle carts designed by the early Greeks were very basic in construction – they consisted of just two rods, with a wheel and an axle on the end. They could be used to carry large loads through fields, the oldest known wheels date to around 3500 BC.
The axles had to fit snugly inside the holes in the wheels but also remain loose enough that they were free to rotate. This is why the development of the axle probably only took place after around 3500 BC, when the first copper chisels and gauges were created to allow the fine-fitted holes and axles to be chiselled.
The invention that changed the community lifestyle
The invention and widespread adoption of the wagon had an immediate and dramatic effect on societies throughout the Middle East and Europe. It drastically increased a farmer’s productivity and altered the landscape. Where farms once required teams of people to move the heavy loads of seeds and crops, the wagon allowed for the possibility of a single‑family venture. Populations that were previously clustered around rivers exploded onto the productive but unexploited steppes. The wagon changed entire economies, lifestyles, wars, and even languages.
Who invented it?
It is impossible to pinpoint a clear and obvious earliest date and inventor, as wagons spread around so fast. As of now, two full size wagon wheels tie for the oldest that archaeologists have found. One comes from a Slovenian bog in Ljubljana; the second comes from the remarkable Yamnayan culture, from a grave in the east of the Black Sea in the North Caucasus, Russia. Archaeologists found not only a wheel but an entire wagon with the skeleton of a thirty something man sitting on it. It is predicted that wheel producers or drivers were buried with their wheel wagons, and some of them believe that this grave belonged to the inventor of the wheel wagon from Yamnayan culture.
Modern Uses of the Wheel
Wheels today are still round, but practically nothing like early wheel designs. This is all due to innovations in material science and the development of mechanical engineering, allowing for more complex and efficient wheel assemblies.
The invention of the wheel unlocked a wealth of other tools, including chariots, wheelbarrows, and mills, as well as gears and a whole host of devices, from steamboats to bicycles and watches, that use gears.
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 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.
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.
The wheel and axle were one of the most important discoveries in human history. They were also one of the most difficult, requiring a number of different developments to occur almost simultaneously. Their widespread use still exists until today and is headed to the future with innovative designs, tools, and materials…
This article was written by team members from GoINNO, a non-profit private organisation dedicated to science outreach and STEM education.
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