The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions

The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions
Richard W. Bulliet
Columbia University Press 272pp £19.95

Richard W. Bulliet brings a fresh view to a story that interests many: the invention of the wheel, providing new and interesting details about when and why the wheel was first adopted. Unlike existing accounts, Bulliet makes strong and refreshing arguments about the wheel’s origins rather than just describing the first uses of wheeled transport through time. Throughout, he reminds the reader that the notion that the wheel was ‘humankind’s greatest invention’ is a 20th-century obsession. He makes clear that the question of origins, like the wheel, is dependent on the interests and needs of particular societies. 

In The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, Bulliet gives serious attention to technical specificity and to local ways of thinking about wheels. He begins, for example, by distinguishing between three types of wheels: wheel sets, in which two wheels are fixed on an axle; wheels that turn independently of the axle; and casters, which are wheels that can pivot and thus face any direction. Each wheel type had different social and technical requirements. His varied evidence from the wheel’s 6,000-year history draws on archaeology, art, technology, anthropology, linguistics, basic physics and knowledge of animal husbandry. The book is full of interesting illustrations of wheeled transport through history.  

Crucial to Bulliet’s account are co-inventions, or other things that were needed to facilitate the use of wheels. He observes that flat roads were needed to make the use of wheel sets (like mine cart wheels) and casters profitable. Crucially, these were generally not available in ages or places when uneven earthen paths dominated. Throughout, Bulliet’s discussion is wide ranging and considers how the development of wheeled transport influenced urban planning, gender relations (the need to transport women appropriately) and timekeeping. 

Bulliet’s story – which necessarily includes more than just the wheel – is original in style and conclusion. His way of thinking about wheeled transport seeks to disprove the most well-known existing accounts of the wheel, including that of Jared Diamond, who connects the invention of wheeled transport to the presence of draft animals to pull wheeled carts. Bulliet, in contrast, does not assume that the needs of different societies for wheels were universal but that they were local and unique. Indeed, he even makes one consider, counter to Diamond, if the presence of pack animals might not have led societies away from wheeled transport because they could more easily transport things on the backs of animals. 

The book argues ultimately that there are probably three different birth places of the wheel, ranging from the copper mines of eastern Europe and mobile homes on the plains of the Black Sea, to the great chariot races of Sumer and the rickshaws of east Asia. The idea of wheels existed in many early societies, as shown by their wheeled toys; a good history needs to explain, as Bulliet does, the changes that result in a society finding wheels useful for transportation. Even in cases where the idea travelled by word of mouth – for example, stories of Chinese wheelbarrows that passed along the Silk Road – still, as Builliet shows, the adoption of a new technology depended on local mindsets. As he ably concludes, understanding local needs is crucial for any historical account: ‘Invention leaves little or no trace … if it is not accompanied by adoption. And adoption … is affected by many considerations. Some are broad, like economic efficiency, military utility, social class, gender, aesthetics and religion; some are local, like availability of wood and roughness of terrain. In illuminating the manifold interconnections among these various considerations, the story of the wheel helps us understand that invention is seldom a simple matter of who thought of something first. Thus does Bulliet’s account transcend the story of the wheel and make us reconsider the nature of invention itself. 

Hermione Giffard is the author of Making Jet Engines in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the United States (Chicago University Press, 2016).

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