The oldest wheel ever found dates from 3,200 BC ©Museum and galleries of Ljubljiana
The oldest wheel ever found dates from 3,200 BC ©Museum and galleries of Ljubljiana

Brief history of… the wheel

posted by Marc Gadian
14 July 2017

Rightly hailed as one of our most useful innovations, it’s hard to imagine a time when humans didn’t roll with it

Although the wheel has revolutionised mankind’s ability to travel and move goods around the world, its first use was not as a mode of transport. The Sumerians in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in around 3,500 BC are documented as the first to use wheels, when potters turned stone wheels to make clay.

This is relatively late in human history, implying  several millennia of agriculture taking place without the aid of a wheel. Significant inventions that came first include sewing needles, boats and the flute. Priorities…

It was another 300 years after the potter’s wheel before it finally aided transportation. The oldest wooden wheel was found in Ljubljana in Slovenia and is believed to date back to about 3,200 BC, around the time the wheel was first used on chariots. The Egyptians created the spoked wheel much later, around 2,000 BC, enabling a much lighter wheel and thus allowing faster movement, with the Celts adding iron rims a thousand years later.

And still, between 500 and 100 BC, camels were the more common mode of transport in the Middle East. This can be credited to the invention of the camel saddle and the decline in road quality after the fall of the Roman Empire.

One rather gruesome use of the wheel was for execution. Catherine of Alexandria, an Egyptian princess from the early fourth century, was condemned to be executed on a spiked wheel for converting to Christianity. Legend has it that the wheel broke into pieces, meaning she survived. She was later beheaded, however. Her name lives on in the fast-spinning firework, the catherine wheel.

The wheel’s part in transportation rolled on remarkably untouched until 1847, when a patent for the first pneumatic tyre – a rubber wheel using compressed air – was submitted by Scottish inventor Robert William Thomson. It wasn’t until 1888 that the first practical tyre was made, by John Boyd Dunlop, following on from the vulcanisation of natural rubber by American Charles Goodyear in 1844.

Michelin developed radial tyres in 1946, and is today’s market leader. The tyre market is now worth an estimated $219bn, having grown about 4.5% a year for the last seven years, largely driven by the huge appetite for bicycle and motorcycle tyres in Asia.


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