It’s fair to say that when an advertisement describes a septic tank as “the best invention since the wheel,” we’ve begun to take our round, load-bearing companion for granted.
In light of Smithsonian’s special July coverage of the frontiers of innovation, we thought this would be an appropriate time to pay tribute to one of the origins of innovation by sharing some intriguing, little-known facts about the wheel.
No wheels exist in nature.
Throughout history, most inventions were inspired by the natural world. The idea for the pitchfork and table fork came from forked sticks; the airplane from gliding birds. But the wheel is one hundred percent homo sapien innovation. As Michael LaBarbera—a professor of biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago—wrote in a 1983 issue of The American Naturalist, only bacterial flagella, dung beetles and tumbleweeds come close. And even they are “wheeled organisms” in the loosest use of the term, since they use rolling as a form of locomotion.
The wheel was a relative latecomer.
We tend to think that inventing the wheel was item number two on our to-do list after learning to walk upright. But several significant inventions predated the wheel by thousands of years: sewing needles, woven cloth, rope, basket weaving, boats and even the flute.
The first wheels were not used for transportation.
Evidence indicates they were created to serve as potter’s wheels around 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia—300 years before someone figured out to use them for chariots.
The ancient Greeks invented Western philosophy…and the wheelbarrow.
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 3 or 4 days in terms of labor savings.