Who Invented the Wheel?
No one knows who invented the wheel. It is an invention that arrived gradually, step by step, over a long period of time, the result of the work of many men, and many experiments. It was, therefore not a spark of genius in the mind of a single inventor, but the result of centuries of work by a number of inventors, that led to the greater mobility of man.
It is believed that man became a tool user some 1,000,000 years ago, and that thousands of thousands of years went by until he made a wheel. But consider the progress that has been made in the relatively short space of time, 6,000 years, since the wheel was invented.
It is a phenomenal rate of speed – 6,000 years against almost 1,000,000 – and shows how truly important the wheel was, and still is, to the growth of man’s technology. The first primitive wheels were found in the remains of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures, and were possibly invented simultaneously in those areas.
However, we do know that it was never invented in the new world. The invading Spanish in the 16th century, bent on colonizing the continents of the western hemisphere, found the early American cultures quite advanced, but not one had a true wheel.
Early wheels were simple wooden disks with a hole for the axle. Because of the structure of wood, a horizontal slice of a tree trunk is not suitable, as it does not have the structural strength to support relevant stresses without failing; rounded pieces of longitudinal boards are required. The spoked wheel was invented more recently, and allowed the construction of lighter and swifter vehicles.
In the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley and Northwestern India, we find toy-cart wheels made of clay with lines which have been interpreted as spokes painted or in relief, and a symbol interpreted as a spoked wheel in the script of the seals, already in the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE. The earliest known examples of wooden spoked wheels are in the context of the Andronovo culture, dating to 2000 BCE.
Soon after this, horse cultures of the Caucasus region used horse-drawn spoked-wheel war chariots for the greater part of three centuries. They moved deep into the Greek peninsula where they joined with the existing Mediterranean peoples to give rise, eventually, to classical Greece after the breaking of Minoan dominance and consolidations led by pre-classical Sparta and Athens.
Celtic chariots introduced an iron rim around the wheel in the 1st millennium BCE. The spoked wheel was in continued use without major modification until the 1870s, when wire wheels and pneumatic tires were invented.
The invention of the wheel has also been important for technology in general, important applications including the water wheel, the cogwheel (see also antikythera mechanism), the spinning wheel, and the astrolabe or torquetum. More modern descendants of the wheel include the propeller, the jet engine, the flywheel (gyroscope) and the turbine.