No single person, or even society, can be credited as the one who invented the wheel. Most people imagine primitive stone wheels used as far back as the caveman days, but they were created more recently than that. Archaeologists estimate that wheels used by Sumerians for pottery and not transportation came around 3500 BC. They were uncovered in an area of Mesopotamia known as the Fertile Crescent. People in this part of Western Asia near the Tigris–Euphrates river were using simple, hand-turned potter’s wheels. Wheels were being used as simple tools years before any form of transportation.
Our ancient ancestors were using tools roughly 100,000 years ago. Clothing, animal domestication, musical instruments, and early agriculture all came thousands of years before there is any evidence of the first pottery wheels.
The wheel is a comparatively recent invention
Many historians believe that our earliest ancestors made use of some sort of rolling objects. Most mammals seem to understand that a round object moves differently from a lumpy one. Still, there is no evidence that anything resembling an actual wheel existed the thousand years before the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age.
The key feature of the wheel is not its roundness, but the hole (or “hub”) it rotates around. It is only the combination of a wheel and axle that allows something to spin or roll. The oldest wheels were attached to their shafts, rather than the wheels rotating around them. With modern wheels, the axle itself would turn between pegs.
Before the pottery wheel, potters were hand-shaping ceramics. People likely learned to keep their pottery on flat rocks or leaves while they constructed it so that they could examine the work from different angles as they molded the shape. The use of the most basic pottery wheel probably came as an evolution of this technique. The first wheels were simple horizontal slices of a tree trunk.
Why was it so difficult to invent the wheel?
The idea of the wheel was not intuitive to early humans. Nothing like the combination of the wheel and axle existed in nature — most inventions of the time developed by observing some kind of organic phenomena. The wheel was one of the first innovations to come purely from human imagination.
Perfecting the axle wasn’t easy—the wood it was made of had to be as smooth as possible, or it would be destroyed by friction almost immediately. Building a wheel required considerably more advanced woodworking skills than any other kind of construction at the time. The size was also difficult to perfect: an axle that was too thin would break, but one that was too thick would generate too much friction.
Humans had to achieve a high level of mastery over carpentry before wheels made their way into transportation. Extensive lengths of straight-grained, hardwood had to be acquired to make an axle with any hope of holding much weight. Metal tools were required to smooth the wood enough for an axle to rotate.
The wheel as a toy
There may have come the point before it was used for any kind of transportation when the wheel was mostly a children’s toy. Small model wagons have been unearthed on the Eurasian steppes and may have predated functional ones.
In the Americas, until European contact, toys were the only use of the wheel. The oldest examples of small wooden animals date back to about 1500 BC in Mexico; they may have been invented in South America entirely independently from its development in Europe.
The native cultures in South America were quite advanced—in many ways, far more so than their western counterparts. It’s not completely surprising that they didn’t adopt the wheel for any useful purpose. Most of their territory had little flat land, and the only domesticated beasts of burden on the continent were llamas that were unsuited to pulling rather than carrying provisions.
The first two-wheeled vehicles
No accurate records exist to identify where the first wheeled carts cam into existence. Wheeled carts appear in several locations throughout the archaeological record, beginning at around 3300 BC. Archaeologists have found evidence of contemporary use in Mesopotamia, Northern Europe, and Central Europe. It’s thought that the pottery wheel has a single point of origin in Mesopotamia; whether the same is true of the wheeled cart or if multiple societies derived new use independently isn’t clear yet.
In 1974, archaeologists in Poland unearthed the earliest known evidence of a wheeled cart. The Bronocice pot has a drawing that appears to display a representation of a wheeled wagon. This pot has been dated to about 3370 BC.
The oldest wooden wheel was unearthed in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 2002. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the Ljubljana Marshes Wheel goes back to approximately 3200 BC. The wheel, which probably belonged to a pushcart, is about 28 inches in diameter and made of oak and ash wood.
The oldest wheels were heavy, and couldn’t hold much weight. Made of simple slices of wood from a tree trunk, they were never perfectly round or very durable. The wood grain split along its weakest points easily and warped with changes in temperature and humidity. This problem lessened when wheels began to be fashioned from multiple planks bound horizontally together and then rounded off at the edges.
Wheelbarrows appeared around 600 to 400 BC in ancient Greece and were later popular in China as well. Monokyklos, (or “monocycles”) were made agricultural and mining work easier, but they were expensive. Using a single wheel makes the wheelbarrow more maneuverable than the previous two-wheeled pushcarts. It was simple to steer on uneven ground and more convenient to dump out its contents. The modern model used today for construction and gardening isn’t much different from that of the ancient Greeks.
The fixed axle
When the wheels and axle turned as a single unit, efficiency is limited. The shaft held onto the body of the cart with wood pegs or within a groove. Friction and lack of stability were problematic, and with both wheels rotating at the same rate, turning was difficult.
Later carts would use holes carved into the frame, with the axle threaded through, and the wheels attached individually. The wheels rotated without the shaft’s need to turn. Carts were suddenly sturdier and could make narrower turns. The materials used for making axles would change, but the basic axle design has never really been improved.
Spokes, and a lighter, sturdier wheel
For a few millennia, wheels continued to be solid blocks of wood with a hole carved in the center for the axle. A solid wooden wheel was unreliable, which meant they broke frequently. Costly, heavy, and time-consuming to build and carrying a heavy load. When far from home, a broken wheel could be disastrous.
In about 2000 BC, the earliest spoked wheels emerged, and evidence points to an origin in the northern Eurasian steppe. A spoke is a rod extended from the hub to the inside of the rim. Originally, spokes consisted of log split into four pieces; later, they became narrow and were more refined.
Spokes made for lighter wheels and faster vehicles. Speed allowed for the first horse-drawn chariots of war and a significant overhaul of the cultural dominance of Europe. The horse tribes of the Caucasus of northeast Eurasia moved down toward the Mediterranean. Eventually, their fusion with the preexisting cultures there would give rise to ancient Greece and shape western culture.
Although a single spoke is more fragile than a solid wheel, it is also easier to repair. A spoke could be repaired or replaced without losing the entire wheel. In about 1000 BC, the Celts developed the technique of banding the outer edge of the wheel in iron, improving durability. Advancements were made in material and construction throughout history, but there was no change to the fundamental model of the wheel until the 19th century.
First real update to the wheel in thousands of years
A name can be associated with the invention of the wheel, starting in 1808. George Cayley was an English aristocrat and aeronautical engineer who was seeking a way to make wheels lighter. Traditional spokes had, for thousands of years, used compression. The weight of the vehicle rested mostly on the part of the wheel touching the ground. This method distributed most of the weight in the same area of the rim through the spokes.
Cayley reversed the stress by using tightly strung tension wires. The wires distribute the pressure from a single point of contact with the ground to the entire wheel. Cayley did not patent tension-spoked wheels, and the first patent was granted to another English aristocrat in 1826.
The application of the wire wheel to the bicycle was invented in 1869 by French inventor and mechanic Eugène Meyer in 1868. He first Penny-Farthing, which exploded in popularity during Meyer’s lifetime. Bicycle wheels remain today the most prominent and well-known examples of tension-spoked wheels. But wire wheels have found many other uses as well.
Robert William Thomson and John Boyd Dunlop
Simple wheel rim-coverings were first made of leather, and later iron and steel. Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber in 1844. His rubber provided a better grip, particularly on the increasingly popular paved roads. In 1847, a Scottish man named Robert William Thomson patented the pneumatic tire at only 23 years old. His invention, the “aerial tire,” was made of a hollow tube of rubber within a sturdy leather casing that inflated to provide a cushion of air between the wheel’s rim and the ground. His tires rolled more smoothly and quietly than any in history, but never went into practical application.
Scots-Irish veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop, by all accounts, was entirely unaware of the tire tube that Thompson had created. He reinvented the pneumatic tire with the practical ambition of quieting his young son’s tricycle. His was the first tire that went into mass production. In 1889, an Irish bicyclist won many races using Dunlop’s pneumatic tire design. His win decisively proved their superiority to existing bicycle tires of that time.
Other important uses of the wheel
Waterwheels use running water as power. The earliest water wheels gained popularity in the Middle East or the Mediterranean. They were used as mills to grind grain as early as 300 BC. They would later become vital to the early textile, paper, lumber, and gunpowder industries.
Spinning wheels make thread or yarn out of raw wool, cotton, other fibers. They have been dated back to the Islamic world in 1030 AD and revolutionized the textile industry.
Steering wheels trace back to the very first ship’s wheels. They were used to replace the simple flat-plank tiller in the 1800s. Steering wheels gave the ships’ navigators better control over the direction. With the invention of the steering wheel came much larger and heavier boats.
Gears or cogwheels are wheels with cogs—interlocking teeth that allow two or more gears to move in tandem. Most associated with clocks, they were first used in about 250 BC to calculate astronomical positions. Modern gears are fundamental to almost every mechanical device.
Amusingly, there is a more current “inventor” of the wheel. In 2001, a man in Australia managed to secure a patent for a “circular transportation facilitation device.” For a time, before he owned up to the prank and the administrative error was corrected, John Keogh of Melbourne was the man who officially invented the wheel.
“Don’t reinvent the wheel” is a familiar turn of phrase, but humanity would have made little progress without reinventing the wheel again and again.
Thousands of years ago, someone invented a remarkable device that had no model in nature. It was the key to the spread and advancement of Western civilization, and there is no better example of human ingenuity.