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Reinventing The Wheel – Several Times

They say that you shouldn’t try reinventing the wheel.  But why shouldn’t you try to reinvent the wheel?   After all, wheels have been reinvented several times over the course of history, and they’ve got better and better every time – something that most motorists of today should appreciate.  Let’s face it: there are more wheels in your car than the ones that actually touch the tarmac.

Let’s go back to when the wheel was first invented, which, according to archaeologists, was about 3800–3500 BC.  Before they had the wheel, the way that they hauled large loads about the place was to put it on a sled sort of thing.  You can try this for yourself some time: compare pulling a large rock across grass straight and then put it on a plank or a piece of tin or something and see how much easier it is.  They think that this is how they managed to build the Pyramids and Stonehenge, by the way.

During the sled years, they worked out that if you put rollers under a sled, it gets even easier to pull a load along.  The only trouble with rollers is that someone has to take the ones that have just popped out the back of the load to the front of the load, and if you’re not quick enough, then everything comes to a standstill.  Then some absolute genius had an idea: what if you could fix rollers permanently under a sled?  That gave us the axle.  Then another genius realised that if you have a larger round thing on the end of the roller, then the sled is off the ground completely and the load can be pulled much faster.  Hey presto: wheels.

Solid wheels on an ox cart from China.

The wheels on early carts and vehicles weren’t made out of stone, which you might be picturing if you’ve seen the Flintstones.  Stone wheels did exist, but these tended to be used for grinding grain rather than for transport.  The early wheels were wooden, and tended to be made of several pieces of wood carefully shaped (tree trunks aren’t always perfectly round) and clamped around the axle in the middle.  However, these wheels were really, really heavy.  With a pair of oxen hitched to the front, a cart could go at about 3 km per hour, which is fine if what you need to do is to carry a large load, but for getting yourself from A to B, it was quicker to walk.

Enter the first reinvention of the wheel.  Another unknown genius looked at the wheel and wondered how to reduce the weight to get better speed and greater efficiency (much like car designers do today).  This genius realised that what you need is the roundness of the outside of the wheel, the bit in the middle that hold the axle and something in between to hold the outer circle to the inner circle.  In other words, you need the rim, the hub and the spokes.  This reduced the weight of the wheel dramatically, meaning that vehicles could go faster.  The combination of hub, spoke and rim was also a lot more aesthetically pleasing, as anyone who has looked at the designs of alloy wheels knows.   This may be why it just feels right to have alloy wheels on a sports car: somewhere deep down in the human psyche, we know that spoked wheels go faster.

And they certainly did go faster.  After the spoked wheel was invented, it became more feasible to use horses to power the vehicle.  Horses were to oxen what turbocharged petrol is to diesel.  Diesel’s great at low speeds and for serious towing but for fast sporty stuff, you go for petrol.  Where you’ve got speed, you’ve got to consider handling as well, especially if you want to corner tightly.  This led to the development of the two-wheeled chariot – possibly the earliest example of a rear wheel drive?  Most recorded uses and images of chariots were used in a battle context and no, they weren’t usually used in head-on charges, despite what you might see in the movies.  That sort of manoeuvre would just lead to pile-ups.  If you’ve got something that fast and easy to turn, it’s better strategy to use the chariot to come in from the side and either drop off infantry or else shoot from the chariot itself before pelting away like mad.

This model comes fitted with classy six-spoke wheels for improved speed and better handling…

It probably didn’t take too long after the invention of chariots for people to try racing them.  It’s human nature when presented with something that moves fast to try to see who’s got the fastest.  Chariot racing was as popular back then as motorsport is today.  In Babylon, they enjoyed racing about on the asphalt – on the streets and on the top of the massive city walls (and yes, they did use actual real asphalt for road surfacing in Ancient Babylon).

There were two real problems with these lightweight chariot wheels.  Firstly, the chariot sat right on top of the axle and there was no suspension system to even out the bumps, which must have made a fast dash extremely uncomfortable for the charioteer and the archer riding up with him (or her, in the case of the Celts).  Leaf suspension is said to based on the technology of the bow and the Egyptians are said to have used it. The second problem was that round bits of wood chipped and broke really easily.  This led to reinvention number two: tyres (or “tires”, which is believed to be a shortened form of “attire”, suggesting that a wheel needed to be properly dressed).

Early tyres weren’t the rubber air-filled things we know today.  Instead, they were made of metal bands that contracted onto the rims as they cooled.  This protected the rim but increased road noise like mad.  It also made the jarring and jolting worse.  They made attempts to soften the steel with leather, but this only went so far and leather wore out pretty quickly with heavy use.

Metal tyres were the norm for millennia. Solid rubber tyres were tried once rubber had been made more widespread.  However, rubber was really, really bouncy, making the ride even worse (we don’t know how lucky we are with modern suspension and shock absorbers).  It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1800s that first a Scotsman called Robert Thompson and then another Scotsman called Charles Dunlop independently had the idea of making a hollow tube of rubber and fitting that around the rim of a tyre, which softened the ride without too much bounce.  Yes, that is Dunlop as in Dunlop tyres.  This was reinvention of the wheel Number Three.  Vulcanizing the rubber around the pneumatic tyre to make it tougher and more resistant to punctures was again invented independently by inventors on both sides of the Atlantic with more familiar names: Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock.  One hundred years after the invention of the pneumatic tyre, Michelin developed radial tyres and put these straight away onto the cars made by the company they had just bought out, Citroën.

The Virtruvian mill, one of the earliest gearing systems.

In the meantime across the ages, wheels weren’t just being used for transport.  Once the principle of the wheel and axle had been invented, it was used elsewhere.  One of the key ways that wheels were used in the hot conditions of the Near East and the Mediterranean was to lift water out of rivers up and into the irrigation channels of gardens and fields; the other was to grind grain into flour for daily bread.  The early versions, which needed something to turn the wheel vertically were a chore to turn – think treadmills.  Somebody realised that if you fit teeth near the rim of the solid wheel that’s turning in the vertical plane, you can make a second wheel being turned in the horizontal plane with similar teeth move the first wheel around.  In other words, they invented gears for irrigation systems and for grain mills, making this another reinvention of the wheel.  Before long, they were playing around with gearing ratios – this was one of the things that Archimedes (yes, the one who ran through the streets naked shouting “Eureka!”) tinkered around with and refined.

Gears got really sophisticated over the centuries, especially for things like clockwork, but it wasn’t until the development of the internal combustion engine that these toothed wheels could be used for transport.  You can’t have the wheels turning at a speed that would make the cart or coach run faster than the horses pulling it.  It was Bertha Benz after her historic drive in the first motor car who had the idea of adding gears to the mechanism so a car could go uphill better.  At long last, the two branches of wheel development had come together, giving us the vehicles we know today, more or less.

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