Inventing the Wheel: How Getting Around Got Easier

The ancient potter's wheel, the first car, rubberized 1950s luxury... Discover how the evolution of the wheel has changed the way we move.

By Heritage Transport Museum

Journey of WheelHeritage Transport Museum

A rolling history of civilisation

Among the ground-breaking discoveries and inventions of human history, the advent of wheel has to be one of the most transformative breakthroughs.

A glimpse of the changing faces of the wheel over the ages.

The structure of the wheel has evolved over time, along with the needs of people and the availability of new materials.

Journey of WheelHeritage Transport Museum

A revolution in more ways than one

The wheel is described as a device rotating about its axis. In the sphere of transport the coming of wheel provided the functionality and made it easier to carry and move goods. Since its invention, the wheel has been used extensively and improved upon throughout the history. Archaeological evidence from  the palaeolithic era - around 750,000 years ago - suggests that early humans knew that heavy objects could be moved easily by rolling them. But research on diagrams from ancient clay tablets show that wheels for transport didn't actually exist until after potters wheels in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq.

Oldest Woodden WheelHeritage Transport Museum

Here's a replica of the oldest wooden wheel from the Heritage Transport Museum's collection of wheels, the earliest wheel was from Mesopotamia.

It was used for transport 300 years after the coming of potter's wheel.

Recent research suggests that the oldest wooden wheel discovered so far is one found in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

That wheel dates back to 3200 BCE, around the same time that wheels were used for transporting animal-pulled vehicles.

Early hubbed wheelHeritage Transport Museum

Initially, wheels were plain and solid, with a central hole for the axle.

Making wheels required a lot of labour and skill.

Metal tools were used to fix the axle inside the wheel, and methods were devised to carve out perfectly uniform, round wheels.

Later, hubs were added to control help control the undulated movement of vehicles.

Wheel of Ekka CartHeritage Transport Museum

For the mechanism to work properly, the wheel must rotate freely around the axle.

This is achieved by fitting the axle directly in the centre of the wheel, which maximises continuity during motion.

The axle and hole must be perpendicular to help reduce friction.

The axle must also be as thin as possible - minimising its surface area - while being strong enough to support the load.

The bullock cart wheels shown here are joined through axle.

Bird Cart (800/1000)Heritage Transport Museum

These are some of the earliest wheels used in India, from a miniature bird cart from the Indus Valley period.

The cart might have been an object of amusement and play for children.

In any case, it shows that people from this period were aware of the use of wheel for movement.

This artefact dates from 1000-800 BCE.

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

Other examples of miniature carts from the Indus Valley Civilization are similar to present-day carts drawn by buffalo.

During the Indus valley period there was dramatic increase in number of terracotta carts and wheels, as evidenced through archaeological finds.

The early appearance of Indus Valley carts suggests that they are a result of indigenous technological development.

Spoked wooden wheel with iron rim.Heritage Transport Museum

Although early solid wheels were sturdy, they were heavy - with 3 to 12 pieces.

They lacked speed and manoeuvrability.

The need for greater speed led to the invention of spoked wheels around 2000 BCE, by the Egyptians.

Iron rims were also added for greater strength in Celtic chariots.

Spoked wooden wheelHeritage Transport Museum

Wooden, spoked wheels with iron rims were the norm for many centuries.

There was no major change in spoked wheels until 1802.

Wheel & Suspension of Post Chaise Horse carriageHeritage Transport Museum

The spoked wheel of a horse-drawn carriage.

Journey of WheelHeritage Transport Museum

In 1802, the first wire-tension spoked wheel came - patented by G.F Bauer.

Several years later, round wire-tension spokes evolved - like those used in bicycles today.

Modern wheelsHeritage Transport Museum

Wheel-making required a lot of skill and effort.

To protect wheels from damage, protective rubber coverings were introduced - and tyres were born!

By John PhillipsLIFE Photo Collection

But early rubber couldn't hold its shape - it became sticky in hot weather and stiff in the cold.

Then, in 1839, Charles Goodyear introduced the process of vulcanisation - making rubber usable for tires.

By John PhillipsLIFE Photo Collection

By heating rubber with sulphur, it would become pliable.

Solid rubber tyres were stronger and resistant to cuts and abrasions, but they made for a more bumpy ride.

Karl Benz's patented Motorwagen of 1885 used wire-tension wheels with hard rubber.

Wheel of Horse carriage LandauHeritage Transport Museum

A spoked wheel with hard rubber - an example of hard rubber in the wheel of a horse carriage from the early 1900s.

Wire tension wheelHeritage Transport Museum

The next evolutionary leap was the advent of pneumatic tyres.

Scottish engineer RW Thompson replaced hard rubber with pneumatic tyres in 1885, air-filled rubber tyres that reduced vibration and improved traction.

The first commercially successful ones were made in 1888 by John Dunlop of Ireland.

Example of Wire tension wheelHeritage Transport Museum

Automobile wheels needed enough strength to withstand violent stress, and to carefully balance them for even rotation.

Early cars had wooden, spoked wheels similar to animal-drawn carriages.

But they weren't durable enough, and were distorted by heavy loads and shrinkage.

An example of wire tension wheels used in the 1932 Chevrolet Phaeton car.

Examplde of Hub CapHeritage Transport Museum

The simplest modern wheel is the pressed steel disc.

Later, cast aluminum wheels allowed for wider, lower profile tires to be fitted for better grip.

A major advancement came in the tyre industry with the introduction of radial ply tires in 1950s, like this one.

Their flexible side walls provide better cornering and longer thread life.

An Example of White Wall TyreHeritage Transport Museum

The white wall tyres were made by a small tire company in Chicago called Vogue Tyre & Rubber Co.

Pure natural rubber was used to make the Early automobile tyres. The rubber was mixed with various chemicals into tread compound to make the tyres wear better.

The best of the compounds was zinc oxide - a pure white substance that increased traction and made entire tyre white. White-wall tyres became symbolic of modern luxury.

Dissected Cycle InstallationHeritage Transport Museum

Inspiring Creativity

Without the invention of wheels the world would come to a standstill (literally). Creativity and imagination has no limits. 

Wheels & MoreHeritage Transport Museum

Here is an installation made from cycle wheels. Older wheels can be repurposed into furniture design.

L'invenzione della moto-ruotaIstituto Luce Cinecittà

Here's a quirky innovation of a motorized version of the wheel.

Rhoen WheelIstituto Luce Cinecittà

Wheels have also been an aiding creativity as an equipment in gymnastics and acrobatics!

Firenze: il signor Moscogiuri è l'inventore di un trabiccolo a tre ruote dalla struttura leggera che, nelle ambizioni del fiorentino, dovrebbe un giorno poter volare.Istituto Luce Cinecittà

Over time, the wheel has enabled myriad inventions - some that have transformed how we live and move - and others that will be remembered more for amusement.

Credits: Story

Curatorial Team Heritage Transport Museum

Mr. Tarun Thakral (Founder & Managing Trustee)
Ms. Ragini Bhat (Curator)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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