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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

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the first patent involving a wheel was issued to James Macomb of Princeton, New Jersey, on August 26, 1791—just one year after the U.S. Patent Law was passed. Macomb’s invention was a design for a horizontal, hollow water wheel to create hydropower for mills. Although the patent office is aware of this patent being issued, the original record was destroyed along with other patents from the 18th century in an 1836 fire.

The earliest wheels in North America were used for toys.

In the 1940s, archaeologists unearthed wheeled toys—ceramic dogs and other animals with wheels as legs—in pre-Colombian layers of sediment in Vera Cruz, Mexico. The indigenous peoples of North America, however, would not use wheels for transportation until the arrival of European settlers.

Roulette means “small wheel” in French.

The origin of the gambling game roulette is a bit hazy. Some sources say Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician, invented it in his attempts to create a perpetual motion device. But what’s more commonly accepted is that roulette is an 18th century French creation that combined several existing games.

The term “fifth wheel” comes from a part that was often used in carriages.

By definition, a fifth wheel is a wheel or a portion of a wheel with two parts rotating on each other that sits on the front axle of a carriage and adds extra support so it doesn’t tip. But it’s superfluous, really—which is why calling someone a “fifth wheel” is a way of calling them unnecessary, basically a tagalong.

How the bicycle ruined enlightened conversation.

As reported in the New York Times, an 1896 column in the London Spectator mourned the impact of the bicycle on British society: “The phase of the wheel’s influence that strike …most forcibly is, to put it briefly, the abolition of dinner and the advent of lunch….If people can pedal away ten miles or so in the middle of the day to a lunch for which they need no dress, where the talk is haphazard, varied, light, and only too easy; and then glide back in the cool of the afternoon to dine quietly and get early to bed…conversation of the more serious type will tend to go out.”

The first Ferris Wheel was built to rival the Eiffel Tower.

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