Representation of an ancient Egyptian chariot.

The Untold History of The Wheel And Its Evolution

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The wheel can be considered mankind’s most important invention, the utility of which is still applied in multiple spheres of our daily life. While most other inventions have been derived from nature itself, the wheel is 100% a product of human imagination. Even today, it would be difficult to imagine what it would be like without wheels, since movement as we know it would be undeniably impossible.

Humans have used animals as a mode of transport for a long time. However, wheels have a fascinating story behind their evolution. It took humans centuries to discern in how many ways wheels could be utilized. They are now an integral part of our society and are expected to remain so for centuries to come. Take note of the following infographics by Big Bang Wheels to learn more about the history of the wheel.

A Brief History of Wheels

A wheel, or a symmetrical unit revolving on an axis, forms the basic component of any given mechanized system today, whether it is a watch or a jet engine. The world moves on wheels today, but the inception of this technology can be traced back to 3500 BC in Mesopotamia.

Technically, the wheel should have been invented long before it actually was, as several other inventions like sewing needles, boats, rope etc. preceded it. When the idea was finally conceived, it was not for the purpose of transport but for pottery. About 300 years later, i.e., in 3200 BC it was first used in Mesopotamian chariots. Interestingly, before they were used for transportation they may have been used for manufacturing or industrial purposes.

Detail of wheeled transport on the Standard of Ur, ca. 2500 BC.

Detail of wheeled transport on the Standard of Ur, ca. 2500 BC. ( Public Domain )

Many researchers are of the opinion that the wheelbarrow, which is a hand drawn vehicle essentially with one wheel, was first invented in Greece between the 6th and 4th century BC. It then found its way to China 400 years later, from where it moved to medieval Europe.

Examples of 13th century wheelbarrow models.

Examples of 13th century wheelbarrow models. ( Public Domain )

Even after it was learned that wheels could be used on vehicles, ancient people still relied on camels for transportation. In the Middle East, wheels were mainly used for domestic purposes like pottery making, irrigation, and milling.

Advancement of Wheels

Iron rims around wheels were first used in 1000 BC on Celtic chariots. After that there was no major change in spoked wheels until 1802, when the very first wire tension spoke was patented by G.F. Bauer. It took several years more to evolve into the round wire tension spokes that are used for bicycles today.

Representation of a Celtic chariot.

Representation of a Celtic chariot. (Johnny Shumate/ CC BY 3.0 )

The invention of pneumatic tires followed wire tension spokes and a patent for it was registered by R.W. Thompson in 1845.  It was further developed by John Dunlop, who replaced the hard rubber used in the bicycles back then with his pneumatic tires and patented it.

The Era of Automobile Wheels

The Benz Patent Motorwagen of 1885 by Karl Benz was a vehicle that used three wire wheels, like in bicycles, with hard rubber fitted around them. André and Edouard Michelin, the founders of the well-known tire company Edouard Michelin, were the first ones to think of using rubber on automobiles. Carbon was added to rubber to prolong the life of the tires in 1910 by B.F. Goodrich Company.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen, first built in 1885.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen, first built in 1885. ( Public Domain )

In 1926 and 1927 the first steel welded-spoke wheels were invented. The wheel continued to evolve even after that in the invention of disc wheels, which had a resemblance to the initial solid wheels. The demand for low-cost wheels led to the discovery, since making steel wheels cost much less.

Modern Day Wheels

The world today is heavily dependent on wheels, without which it would literally come to a standstill. Today, we basically see two types of wheels around us for automotive purposes, alloy and steel. These two types of wheels are much lighter than the initial automobile wheels, which were chunky and heavy.

Comments

Great article. The spoked wheel was invented by George Cayley to keep aircraft weight down, circa 1800. With string being used for the spokes, technically demonstrated in Scarborough, along with the cambered lifting wing, stabilisation, control surfaces and steady level flight. A clever man.

Cayley was a very clever man indeed and ahead of his time. We tend to forget about the bicycling craze of the late 1800s - early 1900s that was made possible by his tension-spoke wheels.

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