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
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.
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.
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.
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.