Origins of ordinary things: The wheel

A wheel is an essential part of every vehicle. As it moves in circular motion around an axis, it makes it possible to drive from one place to another.

Researchers estimate that the wheel was invented around 3500 BC (the Bronze Age) in ancient Mesopotamia; present day Iraq. Made from wood or clay, it was initially made for use in pottery. According to online information sharing platform Idea Finder, by 3200 BC Mesopotamians were using wheels on chariots. 

According to Auto Evolution, an engineering knowledge website, predecessors to the wheel were rolling logs. Logs were challenging to use because they would sometimes go off course.

Around 2000BC, Egyptians started using wheels with spokes on chariots. Between 6BC and 4BC, Greeks invented the wheelbarrow which, according to the Smithonian Magazine, proved to save a lot of labour. The wheelbarrow was then adopted in China 400 years later. 

Following the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the Middle Ages began, during which time road transport systems broke and camels became the common means of transport. According to web-based knowledge resource Ancient Origins, the wheel was used for pottery, irrigation and milling during this time. It was also used for capital punishment. Here, the person would be stretched across the wheel and either beaten to death, or rolled on the ground.

One legend has it that there was a Catherine (now Saint Catherine) in Alexandria, Egypt who was persecuted for her Christianity and sentenced to death by the wheel. The wheel is said to have miraculously broken when she touched it. She was then beheaded.

With start of the industrial revolution, the wheel became a common and important part of mechanical technology.  Many companies competed to have the best tires for vehicles on the market. They tried out different raw materials, designs and sizes to create the most appropriate wheels for each automobile.

Today’s wheels, although a lot more complex in design, still draw their inspiration from the ones first invented in 3500 BC. There is a common phrase “to reinvent the wheel” which means wasting time trying to create something that already exists.

Another common phrase associated with wheels is “to be a fifth wheel” which means a person who is in a place or a situation where they are not needed. This is because earlier motor vehicles could operate sufficiently with four wheels.

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