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Ancient Mesopotamia and the Invention of the Wheel

It's easy to take the wheel for granted, but it's probably the most important invention ever made. The Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia receive credit for inventing the wheel. The Sumerians were a very industrious civilization, and they had a lot of important ideas for making work easier. Although the first types of wheels looked very different from what we see and use today, early wheels were crucial and have led to nearly every modern invention.

Ancient Mesopotamia

The Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia were very resourceful. They had very little metal, stone, or hardwood trees. They used clay to make as many things as possible, including bricks, writing tablets, and pottery. The Sumerians figured out how to channel rivers so the water would flow where they needed it to water their crops. Sumerians also invented the first plow for farming. Because Sumerians worked to mass-produce pottery, they needed a turning wheel to make their work faster and easier. The pottery wheel was the first type of wheel to be invented.

What Is the Wheel, and When Was it Invented?

Ancient Sumerians invented the wheel, and these people also developed the first written language. The oldest wheel discovered by researchers was found in Mesopotamia and dates back to about 3500 B.C.E. People during this era had already made significant strides in their society, planting crops and herding domesticated animals. But the wheel was much harder to create because people needed to be able to design and chisel holes and axles first, which would require metal tools. The wheel started out as a cylinder connected to a stable platform that did not move. Wheels made of clay, rock, or mud moved easily to help people work.

The wheel evolved through many different stages of development. The first known type of wheel was the potter's wheel, and no other civilizations that existed at that time had any similar tool. The potter's wheel was made of hardened clay and was heavy and flat. When the disc was spun horizontally on an axis, a potter could form jars and bowls that were evenly shaped.

From the Wheel to the Chariot

The Sumerians' First Wheel: The Roller

Trees with thick, straight trunks didn't grow where the Sumerians lived, so sturdy logs were in short supply. Instead, they figured out a way to construct logs by cutting flat planks from trees, then fastening them together and chiseling them to make them rounded. The Sumerians then used their homemade logs as rollers to move heavy objects. After propping the edge of the object onto a log, they rolled the log to move the object forward. They would then roll the object onto other logs to move it as far as necessary.

The Second Wheel: The Sledge

The sledge was the next invention for moving heavy objects. The sledge looked like a big sled with runners under it; with less of the bottom touching the ground, there would be less friction, so it would slide along the ground more easily. They made a handle to pull the sledge, and they loaded objects on top of it. People could move the objects by pushing or pulling the sledge. However, if the ground was rocky or bumpy, the sledge was difficult to use.

The Third Wheel: A Sledge on Rollers

Placing the sledge on rollers solved the problem of navigating rocky or bumpy terrain. The sledge on rollers worked quite well on flat ground. But if they used it on an incline, the runners would shift off of the roller as the sledge moved, and the heavy load would usually tip over and off of the sledge. Correcting the runners and keeping them on the rollers was very difficult.

The Fourth Wheel: A Sledge on a Grooved Roller

The Sumerians noticed that the runners created grooves in the rollers with repeated use. Eventually, these grooves became so deep that they actually helped to keep the runners in place so they wouldn't slip off of the roller. The Sumerians created grooves in all of the rollers to keep the runners in place. This modification made the sledge much more effective.

The Fifth Wheel: Two Wheels With a Fixed Axle Between Pegs

Operating the sledge on grooved rollers was still a difficult process requiring many people, since they had to keep picking up the roller in back and moving it to the front of the sledge over and over again. The Sumerians needed a way to make it easier to move the sledge. They discovered that it was only necessary to prop up the ends of the load to carry it; the middle of the roller didn't need to touch the ground. This meant that they could make the middle of the roller thinner, turning it into an axle. The Sumerians attached pegs to the runners of the sledge that would hold the sledge in place on the axle. The axle would then roll between the pegs.

The Sixth Wheel: Two Wheels With an Axle Attached With Bearings

Although the axle made the load much lighter and easier to manage, the Sumerians had the idea to remove the pegs. Instead, they added long pieces of wood to each side of the cart called bearings, which hung down under the cart and had holes drilled in them. The axle rolled inside of these holes. The sledge was attached to the axle and wheels to create the first two-wheeled cart.

The Impact of the Mesopotamian Wheel

During the Middle Ages, people started using wheels as gears. This was a huge step forward, as gears made it possible to invent water wheels, cogwheels, clocks, and astrolabes for sea navigation. The wheel was also an important component in the Industrial Revolution, and most machines built since this time have contained some type of wheel. The wheel has been the foundation of most modern inventions.

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