Why did it take humanity so long to make the wheel?

149 views

It seems so ordinary and simple, but it took early humans a long time to figure out the wheel from what I’ve heard and I can’t understand why.

In: Engineering

think of how long it would take for monkeys or apes in the wild to create a wheel without reference or an idea of what its function would be

The short answer is they didn’t need to. They survived perfectly fine for millennia without the requirement.

> It seems so ordinary and simple

Picture some useful but ordinary and simple creation that humans will invent in the next 200 years. Got a picture in your mind? No? Why not? It’s so ordinary and simple….

Inventions are rarely ordinary and simple for the time they are invented. It may look simple to us because it’s been around for many human lifetimes, but there was a time when it was literally one of the most advanced things humans ever invented.

Jump forward 200 years from now, and some of the stuff we’re inventing today will seem pretty trivial. Just look at cell phones, they’re super advanced but they’re so easy and trivial to make today that most people have one. Go back 30 years or so and they weren’t nearly as common because of how advanced and difficult to make they were…but a cell phone from back then looks ‘ordinary and simple’ compared to what we have today.

Because traditionally we are hunter gatherers. Moving continually across the landscape. Carrying very little. The need to move goods was not really prevalent until the agricultural revolution. This quite simply changed how we live as humans.

Inventions are the intersectionality of constraining factors and opportunity.

Until we had a sufficiently large group and/or society that needed the efficiencies that the wheel could offer to support the constraints of a larger society, plus the conveniences of society for someone to stop long enough and think about the problem without worrying about getting ganked or starving.

For a more serious answer. We probably had the technology to make a rough wheel for a long time. Any round-ish object will roll. Attaching that wheel to something in a useful way takes a lot more craftsmanship. A cart is a lot more complicated than a lone wheel.

In addition to what everyone else said, wheels are a hindrance in many natural uneven environments, noisy, and not easily verically portable e.g. if we want to get on trees. It’s really a simplified environment where the wheel shines, but even getting to that state required a bunch of innovation first.

Wheels are only useful if you’ve got a fairly large area of unobstructed, kinda flat land, as well as something you want to move that would benefit greatly from being on wheels. So put yourself 40,000 years ago. There’s no roads, humans haven’t spent time clearing land for farming or cattle. Since you’ve never been able to move anything that you couldn’t carry yourself, you don’t own anything that you can’t carry.

Because we didn’t have a use for the wheel, more specifically the wheel-axle, until other cultural developments like roads became more widespread.

Another fun fact about the wheel/axle: like most technology, it was invented once and spread throughout the world. It’s not a obvious thing that each culture comes up with, nor inevitable.

We figured out that wheels could be useful quite early on, but couldn’t make a matching wheel and axle for a long time after that.

There’s a documentary on Netflix about humanity’s greatest inventions that talks about this.

Using wheeled transport for carrying cargo or rapid travel didn’t even become efficient until the mid 1800’s. It was often faster to walk.

Necessity is the mother of invention. I’m guessing that as soon as there was a need then it likely got invented rather quickly. Your time frame probably includes the long period of time where there was no need to transport more than you could carry.

It wasn’t the wheel that was hard, it was the axle. Unless you’ve got some boss tools, it’s still hard.

you could teleport a truck into the Stone Age and still be the idiot of the town. There were no roads.

The problem wasn’t the wheel. The wheel was invented once there were decent trails. Probably it has been invented multiple times but it failed to pick up because of the niche use.

Same for horseman. Natural horses were pony size. So they used 2 pony to tow a little chariot. Hence the war chariot. Only once horses were breed into big animals (that can carry a rid r at speed) humans got the opportunity to have cavalry.

Most inventions are a consequence of other developments.

Even today, people are more likely to go backpacking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, dogsledding, canoeing, or use a pack animal, than they are to traverse rough, unmaintained terrain pushing or pulling some kind of non-motorized cart.

Up until recently, things like logging, and moving really heavy objects were also generally done without wheels.

Wheels only offer major advantages under limited circumstances, so many people didn’t have a pressing need to create them, or work on making better versions.

Also, the things that make wheels really good, like steel frames, rims, axles, ball-bearings and pressurized rubber tires all require advanced manufacturing techniques that have only been around for the last 200 years or so.

Don’t forget the potter’s wheel, but I don’t know when it came about versus the cart wheel (?).

Necessity breeds innovation.

No need for wheels? No wheels invented.