The Wheel vs. the Slave: An Ancient Struggle

Before the wheel, slavery was inevitable. After the wheel, it was optional. __ From “The Wisdom of Al Fin”

We tend to think that inventing the wheel was item number two on our to-do list after learning to walk upright. But several significant inventions predated the wheel by thousands of years: sewing needles, woven cloth, rope, basket weaving, boats and even the flute. __ Smithsonian

Rotating Machines

The modern world is based upon rotating machines, wheels, and turbines. Without the invention of wheels-on-axles, and systems of bearings to support them, human enterprise would be largely limited to what could be achieved using human and animal labor. The potter’s wheel was first seen roughly 6,000 years ago, in ancient Iraq. Evidence of more practical types of wheels — the four-wheeled wagon — come from excavations of the European steppe dating to around 5500 years ago. Within a thousand years, the use of two-wheeled carts and chariots had spread rapidly across the near east to Egypt and to south Asia.

The earliest images of wheeled carts have been excavated in Poland and elsewhere in the Eurasian steppes, and this region is overtaking Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) as the wheel’s most likely birthplace. According to Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, there are linguistic reasons to believe the wheel originated with the Tripolye people of modern-day Ukraine. That is, the words associated with wheels and wagons derive from the language of that culture. __ Scientific American

Inventing a practical wheeled machine required innovations that were both conceptual and metallurgical. First the inventors had to conceptualize how the wheel and the axle could work together to support a heavy wooden wagon, with its load. Then, the inventor-craftsmen required tough and sharp metal tools that were up to the task of working durable wooden materials precisely. Quality metal tools were particularly important as more sophisticated spoked wheels replaced solid wheels for carts and chariots.

Why Here and Not There?

Sophisticated invention requires a fixed, established infrastructure that provides the proper materials, surplus time for experimentation, and a prosperous/curious/enterprising population that produces bright craftsmen and the surplus wealth to feed and equip them. These proto-inventors must be sufficiently curious and intelligent to formulate plans of invention, complete with an inventory of time/material/labor needs. Such craftsmen must also be able to convince the chieftain to allocate the time and resources they need to produce the promised invention.

Although the world’s oldest wheel has been found in Mesopotamia, the earliest images of wheeled carts were found in Poland and elsewhere in the Eurasian steppes. Some have suggested that due to the immense challenge that the invention of the wheel posed to mankind, it probably happened only once, and spread from its place of origin to other parts of the world. However, others believe it developed independently in separate parts of the world at around the same time. For example, The Ljubljana Marshes Wheel is a wooden wheel that was found in the capital of Slovenia in 2002 and was dated to 3150 BC. At present, the birthplace of the wheel is said to be either in Mesopotamia or the Eurasian steppes. Although Mesopotamia has the oldest known wheel, linguistic evidence is used to support the claim that the wheel originated in the Eurasian steppes. __ Ancient Origins

In North and South America, the wheel was not used for transportation until Europeans traveled to the New World in the time of Columbus, although the concept of simple wheels existed was demonstrated in toys and calendars. Wheels were not used even for pottery. The deficits seemed to have been both conceptual and material: Pre-Columbian metallurgy in the Americas seems to have been limited to copper, gold, and silver materials. Tools from these metals would not have been strong enough to work tough wooden materials for making wheels and axles. The conceptual drive for the practical use of the wheel also seems to have been lacking in both the ruling classes and the working classes. The “influencers” of ancient American civilisations seemed not to have felt a need for better forms of transport.

The peoples of North and South America did not use wheels for transportation before the voyages of Columbus. They carried loads on their backs and on travois, splayed pairs of sticks dragged along the ground by harnessed dogs. In the Andes, they also used pack llamas. Many students of pre-Columbian society, including anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, have expressed puzzlement over the absence of wheeled vehicles. How, they ask, could civilizations that built magnificent cities and cultivated the arts and sciences have failed to invent something as invaluable as the wheel? Particularly when they knew how to make wheeled toys. __ The Wheel: Inventions and Re-Inventions by Richard W. Bulliet

Ancient China made more use of the wheel than the ancient Americans, but much of it was not to last:

Tradition maintains that China borrowed the use of the war chariot from the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes during the reign of the emperor Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty, who lived around 1200 b.c.e. But mounted cavalry rapidly displaced chariots on the battlefield after 300 b.c.e. Chariots for use by noblemen faded out more slowly, but by the twelfth century, when the famous artist Zhang Zeduan executed a magnificent and immensely detailed scroll painting showing street life in a Chinese city, the chariots were gone. __ The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions

Chariots faded from use in China, but the Chinese made use of unique wheelbarrows for transporting people and goods. This form of wheeled “transport” was utilised in China and Korea. Japan largely resisted wheeled transport until the modern age.

What about Africa?

The wheel was not invented in Africa, but there was some limited use of the wheel in the Horn of Africa prior to modern times:

Nubians from after about 400 BC used wheels for spinning pottery and as water wheels.[21] It is thought that Nubian waterwheels may have been ox-driven.[22] It is also known that Nubians used horse-drawn chariots imported from Egypt.[23]

The wheel was barely used, with the exception of the Horn of Africa, in Sub-Saharan Africa well into the 19th century but this changed with the arrival of the Europeans.[24][25] __ Wikipedia “Wheel”

Who Invented the First Practical Wheel for Transport?

[The wheel’s inventor] was born roughly 5,400 years ago, a date that is well supported thanks to the popularity of [this man’s] invention. Wagons and references to them explode in the archaeological record from the Middle East to Western Europe within a few generations of each other.

But if the when of [the man’s] birth has largely been established, the where is the subject of a lively academic debate. Anthony tells me the wagon “spread so fast that it’s impossible to pinpoint a clear and obvious earliest date.” As of now, two full‑size wagon wheels tie for the oldest that archaeologists have found. One comes from a Slovenian bog in Ljubljana; the second comes from the remarkable Yamnayan culture grave just east of the Black Sea in the North Caucasus, Russia, where archaeologists found not only a wheel but an entire wagon complete with the skeleton of a thirtysomething man sitting atop it.

… The first and most critical component of the wheel, writes Steven Vogel, author of Why the Wheel Is Round, is the fit with the axle. Too tight and the wagon is hopelessly inefficient, too loose and the wheel wobbles and breaks apart. The problem would not have been revealed by the matchbox‑size wheel and axles, nor would models have required the proper ratio between the diameter and length of the axle. Too thick and the axle creates too much friction; too thin and it breaks under strain of the load. __ Source

A good solid wooden wheel required sophisticated laminating technologies for fixing multiple cross-grained wheel-shaped laminates into a finished wheel. Without this “plywood” type of construction, the wooden wheel would have broken down almost immediately along wood grain boundaries. This requirement, alongside the need for sophisticated metallurgy, a fixed infrastructure with surplus wealth, and an intelligent class of craftsmen/proto-inventors having the support of the ruling class — all had to combine to allow the first inventor(s) of the wheel to create a practical (and reproducible) invention.

Evidence of the first full-sized four-wheeled wagons comes from excavations in the North Caucasus and from Slovenia. But the use of the wheel-axle combination for transportation spread rapidly after that time. Because of their expanded ability to transport cargo, the wagon-nomads soon spread out across much of Europe and the near East, taking their useful technology with them, for all to see and imitate.

Why Was the First Practical Wheeled Cart Invented?

The author of “The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions,” Richard Bulliet, makes a case that the wheeled cart was first used for the purpose of transporting copper ore from deep in a horizontal mine shaft, out to the entrance of the mine where the ore could be processed. From there, he says, the concept of the wheeled cart/wagon was propagated across Central Europe through the many wheeled toys that dozens of European craftsmen made and traded — where ingenious craftsmen elsewhere converted the concept into working wagons, chariots, and carts.

If Bulliet is correct, then the motivation for the first practical wheeled cart was simply to improve the efficiency of copper mining in Central Europe. Such a motivation would have been powerful, given the potential profits that a smart copper producer/trader could have made at the time. Considering the “slave vs. the wheel” contest, in the cramped confines of a mine shaft, a single mining cart could have transported the weight in ore that would have required five or more slaves to carry. Besides, too many slaves tend to crowd the shaft, slowing everyone down.

Once the concept of the “mine cart” was successfully upgraded to the concept of a wheeled transport wagon, the path to chariots, windmills, and advanced turbines lay open to be exploited.

Technology Continues to Displace Animal and Human Labor

There is a reason why for much of human history, a large proportion of human beings were slaves, serfs, or other types of menial laborers. Without technology — including the wheel — such would continue to be the case. Over the past hundred years, much has changed around the world:

  • One hundred years ago, the vast majority of people in the world worked on farms. The invention and proliferation of technology has made it possible so that a small minority of farmers (2% here in America) can provide food for all.
  • A little over one hundred years ago, there were millions of jobs related to the main mode of local transportation of the day: the horse-drawn carriage. All of those jobs building carriages, manufacturing buggy whips, raising horses and scooping up their excrement off the city streets. Again, progress and technology have all but eliminated those jobs, and here we are.
  • __ Forbes

    Human nature has not changed significantly. But advanced innovation that has flowed for thousands of years from various parts of Europe, East Asia, South Asia, and the near east, is continuing to change the experience of being human around the world. Where will it all lead? Science fiction has generated thousands of possible answers over the past hundred and fifty years. A relatively recent nonfiction book, Homo Deus, provides more thoughtful speculation.

    We cannot stand still. The alternative to applying our skills to the problems of the future, is to be enslaved by those who take the trouble to do so. “The wheel vs. the slave.” Choose.

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    1 Response to The Wheel vs. the Slave: An Ancient Struggle

    1. info says:

      What is often overlooked is the contributions of Steppe nomads into Civilization. Keeping it in constant churn and not letting it become stagnant like Egypt.

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