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Evidence indicates the wheel was created to serve as potter's wheels around 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia—300 years before they were used for chariots. (Jim Vecchi / Corbis)

A Salute to the Wheel

Always cited as the hallmark of man’s innovation, here is the real story behind the wheel – from its origins to its reinvention

Art historian Andrea Matthies has found comical illustrations, one from the 15th century, showing members of the upper classes being pushed to hell in a wheelbarrow—quite possibly the origin for the expression “to hell in a handbasket.”

Wheel of Fortune: More than just a game show.

The Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is much older than Pat Sajak. In fact, the wheel, which the goddess Fortuna spins to determine the fate of those she looks upon, is an ancient concept of either Greek or Roman origin, depending on which academic you talk to. Roman scholar Cicero and the Greek poet Pindar both reference the Wheel of Fortune. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses the Wheel of Fortune to describe the tragic fall of several historical figures in his Monk’s Tale. And William Shakespeare alludes to it in a few of his plays. “Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!” says a disguised Earl of Kent in King Lear.

Camels 1; Wheel 0

Camels supplanted the wheel as the standard mode of transportation in the Middle East and northern Africa between the second and the sixth centuries A.D. Richard Bulliet cites several possible reasons in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, including the decline of roads after the fall of the Roman Empire and the invention of the camel saddle between 500 and 100 B.C. Despite abandoning the wheel for hauling purposes, Middle Eastern societies continued to use wheels for tasks such as irrigation, milling and pottery.

“Breaking on the wheel” was a form of capital punishment in the Middle Ages.

This type of execution was medieval even by medieval standards. A person could be stretched across the face of a wheel and bludgeoned to death or have an iron-rimmed wheel pounded across the person’s bones with a hammer. In another variation, Saint Catherine of Alexandria was wrapped around the rim of a spiked wheel and rolled across the ground in the early fourth century. Legend has it that the wheel “divinely” broke—sparing St. Catherine’s life, until the Romans beheaded her. Since then, the breaking wheel has also been called the “Catherine Wheel.” St. Catherine was named the patron saint of wheelwrights.

The oldest, most common design for a perpetual motion device is the overbalanced wheel.

For centuries, tinkerers, philosophers, mathematicians and crackpots have tried to design perpetual motion devices that, once set in motion, would continue forever, producing more energy than they consume. One common take on this machine is a wheel or water mill that uses changes in weight to continually rotate. The overbalanced wheel, for example, has weighted arms attached to the rim of the wheel that fold down or extend out. But no matter what the design, they all violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which state, respectively, that energy cannot be created or destroyed and that some energy is always lost in converting heat to work. The U.S. patent office refuses to assess claims for perpetual motion devices unless the inventors can produce working models.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of patents.

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