Where Was the Wheel Invented?
The earliest wheels so far discovered were found in graves at Kish and Susa, two ancient Mesopotamian cities. These wheels are believed to date from 3,500 B.C. They were made from three planks, clamped together with copper clasps. This kind of wheel also existed in ancient times in Europe and the Near East. No one is sure where the wheel was invented, but this archaeological evidence suggests it was probably in ancient Mesopotamia.
A wheel with proper spokes was not invented until after 2,000 B.C. There are records of this wheel in northern Mesopotamia, central Turkey, and north-east Persia. By the 15th Century B.C., spoked wheels were being used on chariots in Syria, Egypt, and the western Mediterranean. The solid wheel was used mostly in farming. Tripartite wheels—wheels with three spokes—were being used in the Bronze Age in Denmark, Germany and Northern Italy for carts.
The invention of the wheel made it possible for people to transport heavy objects much more easily. It also enabled them to travel farther and trade with each other more easily, and so find out about other countries and customs. Nubians from after about 400 BCE used wheels for spinning pottery and as water wheels. It is thought that Nubian waterwheels may have been ox-driven. It is also known that Nubians used horse-drawn chariots imported from Egypt.
The wheel was barely used, with the exception of Ethiopia and Somalia, in Sub-Saharan Africa well into the 19th century but this changed with the arrival of the Europeans. Early wheels were simple wooden disks with a hole for the axle. Some of the earliest wheels were made from horizontal slices of tree trunks. Because of the uneven structure of wood, a wheel made from a horizontal slice of a tree trunk will tend to be inferior to one made from rounded pieces of longitudinal boards.
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 c. 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-spoked wheels and pneumatic tires were invented. The wire spokes are under tension, not compression, making it possible for the wheel to be both stiff and light. Early radially-spoked wire wheels gave rise to tangentially-spoked wire wheels, which were widely used on cars into the late 20th century. Cast alloy wheels are now more commonly used; forged alloy wheels are used when weight is critical.
The invention of the wheel has also been important for technology in general, important applications including the water wheel, the cogwheel, 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.