Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive


Forgot your password?
Transportation Technology

Why Did It Take So Long To Invent the Wheel? 389 389

Hugh Pickens writes "Wheels are the archetype of a primitive, caveman-level technology, and we tend to think that inventing the wheel was the number one item on man's to-do list after learning to walk upright. But LiveScience reports that it took until the bronze age (3500 BC), when humans were already casting metal alloys and constructing canals and sailboats, for someone to invent the wheel-and-axle, a task so challenging archaeologists say it probably happened only once, in one place. The tricky thing about the wheel isn't a cylinder rolling on its edge, but figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder. 'The stroke of brilliance was the wheel-and-axle concept,' says David Anthony, author of The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. To make a fixed axle with revolving wheels, the ends of the axle have to be nearly perfectly smooth and round, as did the holes in the center of the wheels. The axles have to fit snugly inside the wheels' holes, but not too snug, or there will be too much friction for the wheels to turn. But the real reason it took so long is that whoever invented the wheel would have needed metal tools to chisel fine-fitted holes and axles. 'It was the carpentry that probably delayed the invention until 3500 BC or so, because it was only after about 4000 BC that cast copper chisels and gouges became common in the Near East.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Why Did It Take So Long To Invent the Wheel?

Comments Filter:
  • by Daniel Phillips (238627) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @04:20AM (#39237221)

    Oldest example of wheel and axle ca 5100 BC []. And it is a safe bet older examples will be found. By the way, the Wikipedia article usefully points out taht the value of a wheel is greatly diminished without well constructed roads to run it on.

  • by arth1 (260657) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @04:22AM (#39237235) Homepage Journal

    you also don't need metal tools to create a round hole. Rotate a rock in the hole and before long, you have a perfectly round hole.
    How to make the axle? Same principle, but rotate it in a hole in a rock. No, the hole doesn't have to be round, the rotation will cause the rotated object to be round. You don't even need a hole - a wedge will do.

    No rocks? No problem. Rotate a wooden peg in a hole while pouring sand on it, and you create a round hole and a round peg at the same time. The people who invented fire were almost certainly familiar with this effect.

    I think the real reason the wheel became popular so late wasn't that it wasn't invented, but because there were no roads to use them on. Wheels aren't too useful on a forest trail, flood plain, sand dune or stairs. You need a relatively flat, wide and hard surface. When we started living in towns, and traded between them, we also got roads that wheels could be useful on.

  • by khallow (566160) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @04:33AM (#39237295)

    why kites where not used more excessively for lifting objects

    How are they going to make a kite? It's not just a sail, it also requires a lightweight frame and a strong tether. Making a kite heavy enough to lift things that are difficult for humans, is going to require a lot of fancy engineering and materials.

  • Re:America (Score:2, Insightful)

    by lxs (131946) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @07:10AM (#39237877)

    It's probably even simpler: Without a system of paved roads a wheel isn't all that useful.

  • Re:Environment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by professionalfurryele (877225) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @07:29AM (#39237971)

    This strikes me as very likely. I work on legged robotic systems and one of the mantras is 'legs are better than wheels'. Pack animals are much better suited to transporting goods over rough terrain than wheeled vehicles, especially if the wheeled vehicles don't have something like an ICE or battery. Even if you don't have a inorganic power source, on the wrong terrain a primitive wheeled vehicle is probably more of a burden to a pack animal than just putting the material you want to haul on it. Not to mention that if you don't have pack animals your power source (i.e. humans) is even worse suited to the task. In the absence of modern roads, etc. most of the places people would want to live, hunt and move between are the 'wrong terrain'.
    Moreover there is a lower hanging technological fruit, boats. Food is already concentrated on the river so why wouldn't you take advantage of natures highways before bothering to work out how to build vehicles to go on your own.
    While there are other uses for 'wheels' such as grindstones and turntables, the thing we traditionally think of as a wheel is, in most parts of the world where ancient peoples lived, useless without infrastructure. A sled is much better if it snows, or if it is flat but tends to get muddy.A boat is better if you have a river. A pack or a pack animal if the terrain is uneven.

  • Re:America (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Sunday March 04, 2012 @07:52AM (#39238083) Journal

    More likely they simply had a much better invention...slaves. Same reason why all the basics were there to make steam power during the height of the Greek and Roman empires but it was only used to make parlor tricks and toys for the tables of the rich. When you have slaves to do the toting for you why bother? I wouldn't be surprised if that is why so many of our earliest leaps of technology came from desert lands like Syria and Egypt, lots of desert plus nomadic tribes equals less chance to capture slaves and a lot more work to feed the ones you have.

    To me the more interesting question is 'How many times have we had to reinvent things?' because we see all these dark periods where some religion, or some plague or other disaster comes along and we end up taking these huge stumbles backwards that take centuries to recover from. for example we know now that during the height of the Roman empire they had VERY advanced mathematics, used gold sutures to help prevent infection (even if they didn't know why it worked), used lithium in the form of baths to treat the mentally ill, even had taxis that charged by the mile. Then came the rise of the Christians who promptly destroyed anything that didn't have the word Jesus on it and we were sent backwards by centuries. Not knocking the Christians as it seemed like every religion did the same thing, hell we see the Muslims trying their damnedest to do the same even today.

    hell I wouldn't be surprised if the first couple of guys that came up with the wheel weren't promptly strapped to it and set on fire for being witches, would be about right considering here we are in the 21st century and we still have people killing each other over what some goat herder wrote on a piece of sheep's ass 1000+ years ago.

  • by deathguppie (768263) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @08:28AM (#39238215)

    The problem here is not with how to make a wheel/axle combo, and you are both probably right, a solid wheel/axle combo under a slotted bushing is the most likely way to build a cart. However the real issue is not how to create the axle or the bushing or putting the wheel on the axle. It's creating the wheel itself. With only stones, you aren't going to be making a spoked wheel. A flat wheel made of a tree cut out, again is difficult without a metal saw. They didn't go buy planks at the store and nail them together, so they had to cut it out of a solid piece of wood. Not exactly impossible to do with stone, but very, very difficult. One must take into account the amount of labor saved by building the device vs the amount of labor it takes to make it. No one is going to want to spend the time to pound out round wooden wheels with a sharp rock given the amount of time it would take. A purpose made blade that you could use to accurately cut away at a piece of wood with out splitting the grain would more than likely be incumbent upon the wheel creators to possess.

  • Re:Environment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 04, 2012 @09:02AM (#39238379)

    I assume you've never used a wooden wheeled wheelbarrow; a wooden wheel works fine.

    Over hard but uneven surfaces like rocks and tree roots a larger diameter wooden wheel actually works better than a small diameter rubber tire. The only real problem with a large diameter wheel is that it has to be way out in front of the load you're carrying (for clearance) which means you bear more of the weight.

  • by Hittman (81760) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @09:17AM (#39238445) Homepage
    Someone did patent the wheel, in Austraila in 2001. [] He was trying to point out how poorly Australia new patent system worked.
  • Re:America (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ozmanjusri (601766) <> on Sunday March 04, 2012 @09:27AM (#39238487) Journal

    the first couple of guys that came up with the wheel weren't promptly strapped to it and set on fire for being witches,

    They probably just starved to death because they'd wasted so much time on something of no value.

    Like most things,wheels weren't perfected instantaneously. Early wheels didn't have nice bearings and tryres, so they wore out quickly, after just a few Km.

    Hunter gatherers travel more than 40Km/day, so wheels are useless to them. It toook the development of agriculture and settlements before wheels were worth using. In fact, oddly enough, without hermaphrodites, wheels were unlikely to ever be more than toys.

  • by argStyopa (232550) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @10:06AM (#39238671) Journal

    "From the hunter gatherers of then, to the few surviving bands in South America, Africa and Asia today, the hunter gatherers often have to work less hours per week to provide for themselves than the people with their hands on the most sophisticated technology we have available today. One may ask why the wheel should be invented in the first place....Then I watch birds flying around and realize they don't need anyone or anything to create jobs for them, they are self-sufficient. It's the majority of humans who in are social structure are dependent on these wealthy "job creators" to create jobs so that they can survive."

    And this is the sort of cosseted, indolent speculation that leads to absurdities like the OWS protests. Seriously - the only way that people who are by and large comfortable, healthy, well-fed, well-clothed, most college-educated, and wealthy could possibly motivate themselves to protest the 'unfairness' of a system is to contrive some sort of fantastic utopian ideal about the conditions they SHOULD be living in, and then wallow in their own self-pity about the system not conforming to this ideal.

    Part (I believe) of the problem is that the citizenry today in the West are so insulated against risk and discomfort that they quite literally have forgotten how life works.

    For the OP quoted above, he/she looks at hunter/gatherers and even birds, and actually wonders "why would have anyone bothered"?

    My answer is: you've obviously never really survival-camped. Does that seem tangential? It isn't.

    I believe that survival camping is the closest we can reasonably come to living the lives of our primitive ancestors - to appreciate what a shitty, hard existence life was and (most importantly) to appreciate what a magnificent accomplishment is today's civilization.

    (Please note, I mean camping with a minimum of frills. If your definition of "camping" involves a popup trailer, a generator, swathing yourself in modern hyperengineered synthetics and footwear, and dining on foil-packs of carefully-designed and packaged trail foods...well, you might or might not "get" what I'm saying.)

    Life - in a primitive setting - sucks. Not just "oh I can't go down and get a Latte because Starbucks is closed today" sucks, but really, really suck in a life-shortening way.

    First, for a large portion of the time you're simply not comfortable; either too hot in the day and trying to find shade, or too bloody cold. A significant amount of time you're wet - which leads to cold, but also is simply uncomfortable over long spans in its own right. Even finding a place to SIT can be a challenge. You sit on the grass in a park or your yard and think "ok, this isn't so bad"...except that there are lots of places that aren't covered by a nicely manicured cushion of grass. Ever sit on rock in Wyoming in July? Not super-comfortable. Try to find a place to sit in a forest, and usually the ground is wet or at least damp, so you try to find a comfortable section of fallen tree which can be surprisingly challenging. You may think 'comfort' is a trivial thing...but after hours and days and weeks it's bad enough; I can't even begin to fathom how nearly-constant discomfort would impact you over years. The pleasure of simply being dry, comfortable, and sitting in a comfortable chair inside a structure is almost indescribable, especially if one was recently in difficult (cold, wet) conditions.

    Second, as a indolent, probably overweight Westerner, it's probably understandable if you don't quite comprehend the grinding, overarching necessity of food and water. Generally, whatever you want to eat (barring what must have been the almost-heavenly luxury of Autumn when everything was fruiting) is as hard to get as it can accomplish. It's either trying to run away from you, kill you in turn, or protected by defenses that will at least discourage you (ie thorns, or things that make the retrieving of the food-bits prohibitively difficult or painful) or possibly kill you (like mimicry - is

  • Re:America (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @10:12AM (#39238709)

    In fact, oddly enough, without hermaphrodites, wheels were unlikely to ever be more than toys.


  • by Oligonicella (659917) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @10:47AM (#39238917)
    I hunt. I also live on the edge of the Mark Twain Forest. You cannot pull a cart through the Mark Twain Forest and it ain't laws that stop you, it's trees. And no, those "paths to the forest" weren't and aren't smooth. Ruts. Smooth is totally modern. Not even roads in the US were smooth until after WWII. Read up.

    "I am guessing you never hunted. you drive to where you hunt, walk around and kill things, drag them to your cart, load up the bodies and then drive home."

    One, that's not hunting for a living, that's recreation. The giveaway is the "drive to" you mentioned.

    Now, when Ugh and Arrgh hunted, they walked. They also walked ***all the way home*** instead of back to their car.

    "When they could not bring 40 slaves to carry all the dead animals, they needed a cart. plus you did not go on a 1 week hunting trip with just your pointy stick."

    Because all primitive hunter/gatherers were slave holders? No. You have no clue as to primitive life. U and A were also in far better shape than you and porting a 150lb carcass wasn't all that much.

Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them. - Oscar Wilde