The wheel – an ancient invention that we hardly ever think of unless we get a flat in the middle of the road. And then, thank heaven for spare tires. Yet, believe it or not, there is more to wheels than we might think.

Wheels can spark interesting conversations in the domain of automotive, mechanics, toys, and even linguistics. Join us in this post, as we uncover exciting facts about the wheel. Before you know it, you will find yourself equipped with some engaging conversation starters.

How was the wheel invented?

Humanity had to wait until the Bronze Age, around 3,500 years ago, to witness the invention of the wheel in ancient Mesopotamia. This might come as a surprising fact considering how important the wheel is for the transportation of food, commodities, and eventually people.

Copper and other materials were used to build the wheel axles. The wheel-and-axle concept was simply genius, and the axle had to be of perfect diameter to create a nice balance between friction and load support. Smoothness and roundness were also very important for the wheel to turn. All these components are so inter-connected and complex that many anthropologists suggest that the wheel could not have been invented in phases. It must have been created all at once.

What were the early uses of the wheel?

Early wheels with a wooden disk and a hole for the axle had multiple uses in the early times. And transportation was not initially one of them. Instead, wheels were used for pottery, which had gained importance in the religious context. Irrigation and milling were also among the practical uses of the wheel. It would be around 300 years later that the wheel would be used for the first chariots.

The wheel was also used as a form of death punishment in the Middle Ages. The sentenced person would have an iron-rimmed wheel across their bones while being hit with a hammer. In fact, breaking on the wheel was quite common at that time.

Who manufactures wheels today?

In the early days, the wheel was an artisan product. As transportation was gaining its momentum, especially during the industrialization period, the wheel became a product of mass production in different parts of the world. Nowadays, you may think that automakers also manufacture wheels. Yet, that rarely happens. Wheels are a necessity and simultaneously so complex, that specialized tire producers have become prominent in the market.

For example, Bridgestone Corp, Continental AG, or Group Michelin are among the largest global tire producers. According to the Global Industry Analysis, “The global tire market value is expected to reach of around US$ 150 Bn by 2027”. Who would have thought that the wheel would make such progress from the early days of pottery?

The wheel as a metaphor?

Humanity took the wheel so close to the heart that “wheel-phrases” became part of our daily conversations, as well as literary works. Most likely you have heard the famous “wheel of fortune” phrase, which takes origin from Greek and Roman mythology. Goddess Fortuna (or Fortune) liked to rotate the wheel with her hands, thus playing the fate of the people. One day you are on top, and the other, – you fall to the bottom.

Shakespeare makes use of the wheel, too, in his plays: ““Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!” says a disguised Earl of Kent in King Lear. In addition, Dante’s “wheel of flame” or John Lennon’s metaphorical song lyrics about wheels going round and round reflecting the time that passes by are other examples of the wheel being omnipresent in our social jargon.

What would have happened if the wheel had never been invented?

“What if” questions can be tricky at times. This one is no exception. During this post, I have shown that the wheel has become an intrinsic part of our life and even language. Now, let’s play. I dare you to name all everyday objects that include the wheel or gears. I can list a few just now: your car, bicycle, electric fan, your watch, CD, the inner plate of the microwave, roundabouts, among many-many others.

Can you imagine the world without all these things? Without transportation and gears? Would there have been another invention to substitute all these instead? Humans have the ability to create genius solutions when faced with a necessity. What could there have been instead? As a matter of fact, science and technology rely extensively on circular and wheel-related concepts. Mobility and traveling would not be the same without the wheel.

What are your thoughts? Do you think we can ever re-invent the wheel? Feel free to share with us in the comments below.


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