The Origins of the Wheel

6509578_orig The word wheel comes from the Old English hwēol, of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root shared by Sanskrit cakra ‘wheel, circle’ and Greek kuklos ‘circle’.

The oldest known wheel found in an archaeological excavation is from Mesopotamia, and dates to around 3500 BC, a relatively late chapter in the story of the development of human civilisation really.

One of the reasons why the wheel was invented only at this point in history (The Bronze Age) is due to the fact that metal tools were needed to chisel fine-fitted holes and axles. This leads to the next reason – the wheel was not just a cylinder rolling on its edge. It was a cylinder that was connected to a stable, stationary platform (the axle). It would have been almost impossible to achieve the perfectly round form needed without metal tools and without this form it fails to function.

The success of the whole structure was extremely sensitive to the size of the axle. A thick axle would generate too much friction, while narrow one would reduce friction but would also be too weak to support a load.

Mesopotamian wheels may have been used for pottery well before this but not for transportation – at least there is no other evidence of this. There are earlier images of wheeled carts which were found in Poland and elsewhere in the Eurasian steppes. Whether this indicates that the wheel was invented in one place and spread or whether it was invented more than once if you like would only be speculation. So the old saying “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel”….somebody may already have done.

By 2000 BC heavy wheeled transport is in use in a region stretching from northern Europe to western Persia and Mesopotamia. Horse and Chariots are now operating – Here is a vehicle in which a ruler or noble can cut a fine ceremonial dash. There are chariots among the treasures in the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Wheeled-transport created the need for better roads. Although we had paved roads in Britain well before them, the Romans were obviously the game changer. Roman roads deteriorated in medieval Europe because of lack of resources and skills to maintain them, but many continued to be used. The alignments are still partially used today, for instance, parts of England’s A1.

Pottery….. By the 1st century B.C., wheelmade pottery was being imported from the Roman world and finer ‘Belgic-type’ vessels were being produced in East Anglia. Imported wares were popular but wheelmade pottery was manufactured in Britain.

174274_origBy the early 5th century though, the art of pottery manufacture with a wheel had been lost (or was simply not required) in Britain. Whilst some areas, such as Cornwall, continued to import fine pottery from the Continent, other areas reverted to handmade vessels in similar forms to those of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Plain cooking vessels and decorated ‘urns’ were again common. The similarity between Iron Age and Saxon pottery, particularly in East Anglia, can cause problems where no other dating evidence is available.

In medieval times the wheel had many other uses, here are a few :-
Agriculture for one…. The heavy plough changed the world in the early Middle Ages from around year 900 to 1300. This enabled the heavy, clay soil of northern Europe much more efficiently
Torture devices…. Wheels such as the breaking wheel were adapted to many torturous uses. They could be part of a stretching rack, but medieval torturers were far too creative to leave it at that. I won’t go into the gore but a quick google search may give you a few nightmares.

Spinning Wheel…. Another key innovation in the 13th century was the introduction into Europe of the spinning wheel. “The Great or Jersey wheel, introduced around 1350, was the first improvement made in the process of cotton spinning. Thread could be spun faster on the wheel than with the traditional distaff.

The Water Wheel…. The water mill was used for grinding grain, producing flour for bread, malt for beer, or coarse meal for porridge. Hammermills used the wheel to operate hammers. One type was fulling mill, which was used for cloth making. The trip hammer was also used for making wrought iron and for working iron into useful shapes, an activity that was otherwise labour-intensive. The water wheel was also used in papermaking, beating material to a pulp. In the 13th century water mills used for hammering throughout Europe improved the productivity of early steel manufacturing. Along with the mastery of gunpowder, water power provided European countries worldwide military leadership from the 15th century.

The medieval world certainly would have been different without the good old wheel we take so much for granted now.

David Guest