Inventing the Wheel

by Deb on June 11, 2012


As part of my series on changes in everyday things my husband suggested tyres, which started me looking at iron rims, rubber and pneumatic tyres. And as a title, the obvious has to be that well-known phrase ‘Re-inventing the wheel.’ Except I hate that phrase so much that I got side tracked, and instead this post turned something else. You might get tyres next time.

Why do I hate it? It rubs me up the wrong way because of all the horribly wrong assumptions in it.

  • Wheels are ‘the earliest invention’ – it’s not inherent in the saying but I’ve seen it around.
  • Wheels are good.
  • So good they don’t need improvement.

The Earliest Invention

No way. Not even close. Chimps use tools. The earliest stone tools are about 2.5 million years old and I think knives, axes, spears, spear throwers, fire, needles, and houses that will make it through an ice age winter on the Siberian steppes all count as inventions. So do clothes, cooking pots and boats. I’d even argue that the processes for tanning and processing hides and domesticating animals count too.

What is it that we mean by an invention? Something that is not intuitively obvious but does a job for us? Does making your own windbreak rather than huddling next to some rocks or bushes count? People have been inventing things for a very long time, wheels are just one of millions. I would be interested in why we ended up with the wheel rather than the knife or cooking or something that actually was an early invention.

Wheels are good

Wheels are fabulous and allow you to transport very heavy loads … provided you have roads or even, flat terrain. Everywhere else, which makes up the majority of the globe, they’re pretty much useless. Try a boat or pack animal instead.

The image that wheels are always good is pervasive – I’ve even been asked in biology why animals haven’t evolved wheels. Apart from the obvious anatomical difficulties, that would make their lives much harder as they could no longer go over rocks or things like river banks. Basically, wheels are great, in very specific situations. If you aren’t in that situation and you try to make wheels work, you’ll be wasting a lot of time and effort.

Wheels don’t need to be re-invented

Except for the time spokes were added. Or metal rims. Or rubber, then pneumatic tyres. Wheels are constantly being re-invented or improved, and implying that we don’t need to re-examine the basics might leave us with a seriously sub-optimal solution. It’s a balancing act – you don’t need to start from the beginning every time, but sometimes it’s good to have a really close look at what you’re doing and why and see if there might be a better way.

Overall, I think wheels were very clever and I admire whoever came up with them, as well as whoever came up with all the other inventions needed to make them work. But there’s nothing wrong with stepping back every now and then and re-evaluating if you could improve the basics, or even abandon them altogether. Wheels are good as long as they are a help, not a restriction. Then they need a little re-invention.

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