It just takes a flea market purchase to put my mind in gear, and this week's buy got me rolling...literally and figuratively...who really invented the wheel?
I was fascinated by an article that highlighted that there are no wheels in nature even though most inventions are inspired by the natural world. The idea for the pitchfork and table fork came from forked sticks; the airplane from gliding birds. But the wheel is one hundred percent homo sapien innovation. As Michael LaBarbera—a professor of biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago—wrote in a 1983 issue of The American Naturalist, only bacterial flagella, dung beetles and tumbleweeds come close. And even they are “wheeled organisms” in the loosest use of the term since they use rolling as a form of locomotion.
Another tidbit from an article in The Smithsonian said that The Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is much older than Pat Sajak. In fact, the wheel, which the goddess Fortuna spins to determine the fate of those she looks upon, is an ancient concept of either Greek or Roman origin, depending on which academic you talk to. Roman scholar Cicero and the Greek poet Pindar both reference the Wheel of Fortune. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses the Wheel of Fortune to describe the tragic fall of several historical figures in his Monk’s Tale. And William Shakespeare alludes to it in a few of his plays. “Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!” says a disguised Earl of Kent in King Lear.
Research uncovered that diagrams on ancient clay tablets, the earliest known use of this essential invention was a potter’s wheel that was used at Ur in Mesopotamia (part of modern day Iraq} as early as 3500 BC. The first use of the wheel for transportation was probably on Mesopotamian chariots in 3200 BC. It is interesting to note that wheels may have had industrial or manufacturing applications before they were used on vehicles.
Wheels with spokes first appeared on Egyptian chariots around 2000 BC, and wheels seem to have developed in Europe by 1400 BC without any influence from the Middle East. Because the idea of the wheel appears so simple, it’s easy to assume that the wheel would have simply "happened" in every culture when it reached a particular level of sophistication, but this is not the case.
The great Inca, Aztec and Maya civilizations reached an extremely high level of development, yet it appears they did not have wheels. Even in Europe, the wheel evolved little until the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution the wheel became the central component of technology and came to be used in thousands of ways in countless different mechanisms.
"Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza. ~Dave Barry