In today’s world, technology is developing at an unprecedented rate. The latest gadget today is tomorrow’s antique. As a result of this rapid development of technology, we often take things for granted. One of these is the wheel. Take a look around, and you will see wheels everywhere, be it as tyres, or in everyday machinery. The wheel has even been imbued with symbolic meanings, most famously, perhaps, as a metaphor for the never-ending cycle of life.
One may be tempted to think that the wheel is just a humble or even primitive invention compared to some of the fancy gadgets that we have today. Nevertheless, the wheel (specifically as a means of transportation) was actually invented at a relatively late point in human history. The oldest known wheel found in an archaeological excavation is from Mesopotamia and dates to around 3500 BC. This period was known as the Bronze Age, which is a relatively late chapter in the story of the development of human civilization. By this time, human beings were already planting crops, herding domesticated animals, and had some form of social hierarchy.
A Mesopotamian wheel. Photo source.
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 center of the wheels, had to be nearly perfectly smooth and round. Failing to achieve this would result in too much friction between these components, and the wheel would not turn. Although the axle had to fit snugly in the holes of the wheels, they had to have enough room to allow them to rotate freely. Given the complexity of the wheel-axle combination, it may be unsurprising that the wheel was not initially invented for transportation purposes. Instead, it has been claimed that wheels were first used by potters. Remember the 5,500-year-old wheel for Mesopotamia? It seems that it was a potters’ wheel (the use of wheels for pottery making may date even further back into the Neolithic). It seems that the use of wheels for transportation only happened 300 years later.