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M577
Reinventing the Wheel

Jeffrey Syken

No one knows for sure how exactly it came to be, but from time immemorial, the wheel has served mankind like no other invention before or since. Maybe one of our ancestors saw a fallen tree roll down a hillside and they had their “Flash of Genius.” In fact, ancient civilizations made good use of logs (used as rollers) to move massive blocks of stone. Somewhere along the way, someone had the bright idea of cutting the log into circular sections and, by cutting a whole in its center and joining two wheels with a crude wooden axle, the “wheeled vehicle” was born. But it didn’t end there. Over the millennia, the wheel has been the subject of a never-ending effort to improve the basic concept. The potter’s wheel made its appearance in about 4000 BCE and the Egyptians made the wheel light yet strong by using wooden spokes for their war chariots. Later, the Celts introduced the iron rim.

By 1000 BCE, wheel-making had become the product of a skilled tradesman thus making wheels more valuable. Perhaps the greatest use of wheel technology (besides transportation) has been the waterwheel. Invented by the ancient Greeks (ca. 300 BCE), the power of running water was harnessed to mill flour, grind/cut wood, crush ore, pump water etc. Ironically, though known to the Romans (the greatest engineers of the ancient world) made little use of waterwheels, preferring slave labor instead. Improved in medieval Europe and China, the waterwheel exists even to the present-day as turbines in hydroelectric dams. Though much more sophisticated, the basic idea is still the same: use the power of water to turn a large wheel.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, the wheel took on an ever greater role in human society. The wire tension spoke was/is widely used for bicycle wheels and the crescent-shaped (integral) counterweight helped to balance the attached connecting-rod of a steam locomotive. Perhaps the most far-reaching improvement of the wheel was the invention of the pneumatic tire in 1845. However, it would not be until 1888 that it was improved upon by a Scottish veterinarian by the name of John Dunlop. With the invention of the automobile, the wheel saw its greatest innovations. Today, “airless tire” technology allows vehicles to traverse difficult terrain without fear of “blowouts.” As well, spherical-shaped, integral drive, collapsible, self-balancing wheel/s have all made their appearance in recent years, giving new emphasis on the old adage: “Don’t reinvent the wheel, improve it.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.


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