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

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)

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Norman Anderson, author of Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History, surmises that the first pleasure wheels, or early Ferris Wheels, were probably just wheels with buckets, used to raise water from a stream, that children would playfully grab hold of for a ride. But it was the “revolving wheel, 250 feet in diameter and capable of carrying 2,160 persons per trip,” invented by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. and unveiled at Chicago’s World Columbian Fair in 1893, that really brought the Ferris Wheel to the carnival scene. The fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, and organizers wanted a centerpiece like the 984-foot Eiffel Tower that was created for the Paris Exposition of 1889. Ferris answered that call. He apparently told the press that he sketched every detail of his Ferris wheel over a dinner at a Chicago chophouse, and no detail needed changing in its execution.

In movies and on TV, wheels appear to rotate in reverse.

Movie cameras typically operate at a speed of about 24 frames per second. So basically, if a spoke of a wheel is in a 12 o’clock position in one frame and then in the next frame, the spoke previously in the 9 o’clock position has moved to 12 o’clock, then the wheel appears stationary. But if in that frame another spoke is in the 11:30 position, then it appears to be revolving backwards. This optical illusion, called the wagon wheel effect, also can occur in the presence of a strobe light.

One man actually succeeded in reinventing the wheel.

John Keogh, a freelance patent lawyer in Australia, submitted a patent application for a “circular transportation facilitation device” in May 2001, shortly after a new patent system was introduced in Australia. He wanted to prove that the cheap, streamlined system, which allows inventors to draft a patent online without the help of a lawyer, was flawed. His “wheel” was issued a patent.


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