From Wagons To Cars: Invention and History of the Wheel

At first thought, the wheel may seem unremarkable and basic. Considering modern technology, the simple, round design of a wheel doesn't seem like an overly clever or difficult discovery. The wheel is, however, one of the most important and beneficial discoveries made by humans. It has helped civilizations grow by means of transportation and machinery, all because of its ability to rotate and make items move more easily and with less effort. Without the wheel, many of the luxuries that people enjoy today, such as driving a car, would not exist. The automobile, however, isn't the only thing that has benefited from the invention of the wheel. Wheels have been used for everything from wagons that carried families out West to water wheels that were used to generate power. On a daily basis, however, people rely on auto wheels the most. By learning about the wheel, one can fully appreciate its significance and impact on the world in general.

Who Invented the Wheel and When?

The actual invention of the wheel is most often traced back to early Iraq. During that time, Iraq was known as Mesopotamia. Although an exact date is unknown, the wheel's invention has been dated to around 3500 B.C., when it was used as a potter's wheel. Although this is the most common reference to the invention of the wheel, humans were known to have used logs as rollers to transport heavy objects as far back as 12,000 years ago.

Wheels and Early Forms of Transportation

The first use of wheels for transportation was for chariots and carts around 3000 B.C., which was well before the automobile. This also occurred in ancient Iraq. The wheels at the time were solid wooden discs to which a wooden axle was attached. The axles helped the wheels to turn when pulled by horses or oxen. Spokes on wheels came around a thousand years later, in 2000 B.C., and were often used by the Egyptians during times of war.

Wheels and Wagons

Without wheels, the migration west would not have been possible for American settlers. Families traveled by covered wagons that required the use of four wheels to travel across the often-rugged terrain. In most wagons, the wheels were larger in the back and smaller in the front for ease of turning. Wagons were used for other purposes in addition to the westward expansion. The Conestoga wagon was a type of freight wagon used to carry goods, for example, and was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. Other wagons included farm and delivery wagons, all of which required four wheels, the wheels again being larger in the back and smaller in the front.

Wheels and Cars

Tires were placed on wheels to reduce wear and improve their performance on rough roads. Early tires were made of leather or steel, which was forged around the wheel. This was eventually replaced by solid rubber, which came about following the invention of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear in the 1800s. The solid rubber tire became quite common on bicycles, but it was lacking when it came to absorbing the shock from the road. Although durable, solid rubber tires could make for an uncomfortable ride. In France, in 1846, Robert William Thomson invented the very first pneumatic tire, although credit is often not given to him. Thomson's tire was expensive and received little attention; John Dunlop's invention in 1888 of the bicycle pneumatic tire is often credited as the first of its kind. This air-filled tire would soon replace the solid rubber tires that were used on bicycles, as they were better at impact absorption and made riding a bike a smoother experience. In addition, pneumatic tires were ideal when it came to the auto industry and heavier vehicles. The first attempt to use pneumatic tires on a car was by Andre Michelin in 1895, when the tires were used in a race. While he was unsuccessful at winning the race, the tires sparked much interest. Pneumatic tires soon became the tire of choice and are still used on today's wheels.

  • A Salute to the Wheel: This is an article on the Smithsonian website that reviews the history of the wheel and its contributions to society.
  • The Origin of the Wheel (video): Click this page to view a video that explores when the wheel was invented and who invented it. The advancement in its use is also discussed in the video.
  • The Wheel Revisited: In discussing the invention of the wheel, this page focuses on the use of rotary motion and the invention of the pottery wheel.
  • History: Invention of the Wheel: Read a brief outline of the invention of the wheel on the NOTAP website by clicking on this link. The article focuses primarily on the invention, early use of the wheel, and importance of the wheel.
  • The Wheel: Open this page to read information regarding wheels and bicycles. The page explores the changes in bicycles and how wheels advanced as well.
  • Wheels: Our Greatest Invention: This article from The Sun educates readers about the early years of the wheel and its uses. The page also briefly discusses advancements made courtesy of wheels. In addition, readers will also find images and a video about wheels.
  • Round and Rubber But Always Evolving: This article on the website for Road & Track magazine on cars and car parts reviews the ever-changing nature of tires.
  • It Happened First in Ancient Mesopotamia: Read this press release from the University of Chicago to learn more about ancient Mesopotamia. The article covers the many inventions and early uses credited to this civilization.
  • A Historical Background of Tires: On this page, readers can learn about the changes in the tires that have been used on wheels. Readers will learn about the shift from rubber to pneumatic tires and from bias-ply to radial tires.
  • Potter's Wheel: Clicking on this link opens up a page that not only shows the image of a potter's wheel but also describes what it is and how the wheel is used. The potter's wheel shown is from Egypt and dates back to 2400 B.C.
  • Robert William Thomson: Go here to read about the Scottish inventor Robert William Thomson, the inventor of the pneumatic tire, one of the critical car parts that served to make transportation more comfortable for passengers. His life and other inventions he came up with are among the other subjects that visitors can read about on this page.
  • The Eclipse of the U.S. Tire Industry (PDF): The history of the tire industry is the focus of this paper hosted at the University of Chicago's Chicago Booth website. The advantages of radial tires and the consequences of the American tire industry's failure to adopt radial tire technology are part of the focus of this PDF document.
  • When Were Car Tyres Invented? This Australian Times article talks about the various 19th and 20th century innovators who helped create the modern automobile tire. Philip Strauss, Andre Michelin, Charles Goodyear, and John Boyd Dunlop are among the inventors who are mentioned here.
  • The History of Bicycles: Visit this page to read a timeline of the evolution of bicycles. The development of tires and their importance in increasing rider comfort are discussed here as well.
  • Mesopotamia: Site of Several Ancient River Civilizations: People who read this page will learn about certain aspects of Mesopotamian culture and also about their discoveries. Wheels and their uses are part of the inventions mentioned on this page, in addition to the plow and the sail.
  • History of the Water Wheel: Learn about the water wheel, which is another invention not possible without the invention of the wheel, and its history by clicking on this link.
  • Wheel and Axle: Open this link to view a very simple page that explains what the wheel and axle are and do. The page includes examples of how a wheel and axle are used in modern times and includes images.

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