In the course of history, a majority of inventions have drawn inspiration from the natural world. The concept of the pitchfork and table fork, for instance, was derived from the structure of forked sticks, while the airplane found its origins in the graceful flight of birds. However, the invention of the wheel stands as a testament to the creativity of Homo sapiens.
While we often associate wheels with primitive technology reminiscent of cavemen, the reality is that their design is so ingenious that their invention didn’t occur until around 3,500 BCE. This period marked the Bronze Age, during which humans were already crafting metal alloys, constructing intricate canal systems and sailboats, and even devising sophisticated musical instruments such as harps.
Its delayed arrival is linked to its design. The wheel must fit snugly on the fixed axle to keep things connected, yet not so tight that it hinders spinning. Moreover, both the axle’s end and the wheel’s hole must be completely smooth to reduce friction. Solving these issues today is simple but extremely difficult in ancient times. This is likely why the wheel and axle weren’t created until around 4,000 BCE, after cast copper tools like chisels and gouges became widespread.
An early wheel made of a solid piece of wood
The exact inventors of the wheel remain unknown. Wheeled vehicles emerged in different parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The creation of the wheelbarrow, a cart with one wheel for moving goods, is often attributed to the ancient Greeks. Nevertheless, earlier signs of wheeled carts have been uncovered in both Europe and China.
A fascinating fact is that the oldest axle discovered isn’t from a wagon or cart but from a potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia. This axle is believed to have been made around 3,500 BCE. Initial wheels were made from a wooden disk with a hole for the axle. They found use in activities such as irrigation, milling, and pottery. It was hundreds of years before wheels were added to the first chariots.
A Sumerian pictograph, also dated around 3,500 BCE, showed a sledge with wheels. This idea might have been inspired by using logs as rollers. Early carts had wheels and axles that turned together. As time progressed, however, the invention of the fixed axle emerged. In this design, the axle stayed in place and connected firmly to the cart frame. The wheels were attached to the axle in a way that let them rotate freely. Fixed axles led to stable carts that could turn corners better. At this point, the wheel could be seen as a complete invention. Yet, it wasn’t until around 2,000 BCE that the discs started to be hollowed out, creating lighter wheels.
A depiction of an onager-drawn cart on the Sumerian “War” pane, c. 2,500 BCE
The full-size wagon might have been one of the earliest inventions in history that went viral. Archaeologists have found large carts from places like southern Iraq to Germany, all appearing within a couple of centuries of each other. This was a time when cultures were quite separate, yet the wagon seemed to have a universal appeal.
The wheel’s invention significantly hastened the progress of civilization by simplifying long-distance travel. Trading networks broadened, and the size and scale of wars grew. Towns and cities became more crowded, and their growth was fueled by the increased efficiency of farming with wheelbarrows. This method substantially raised a farmer’s productivity and transformed the landscape. In the past, moving heavy loads of fertilizer, seeds, and crops required teams of people on farms. However, wheelbarrows and wagons allowed a single family to handle these tasks.
Words of wisdom
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” ―Kurt Vonnegut
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” ―Thomas A. Edison
“Give me but a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth.” ―Archimedes
“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.” ―Sigmund Freud