The Invention of the Wheel

This post appeared originally at Red Kite Prayer. For more of my cycling related writing also check out The Cycling Independent.

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is probably the non-fiction book of the last decade, as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel were the big idea books of decades past. Like those books, it is sweeping in its scope and novel in its perspective, and while Harari discloses few facts that we didn’t already know, he manages to turn the history of our species on its head and demonstrate a new way to look at our behavior. I enjoyed it a lot.

We tend to think we’re very clever, the apex predator, the conscious thinker that contemplates its own consciousness, the inventor of machines to amplify our ideas and actions. Harari sticks a pin in the balloon of our self-regard. He makes a strong case, for example, that the agricultural revolution was a mistake, and maybe even that wheat cultivated us, rather than the other way around.

Inspired by Sapiens, I cast my small mind on my narrow area of quasi-expertise and came up with a question I think deserves answering.


Listen, the wheel appeared in 3300 BCE. That’s the main ingredient of a bicycle. The first wheels were pottery wheels, so I can cut the early Elamites some slack for not jumping directly from urns to road bikes, but humanity was busy trying to domesticate horses already. Did no one think?

By 2100 BCE we were building chariots. We have wooden wheels with axles, and we’ve made useful pets of animals 5-10 times our size. They’re heavy, unpredictable animals though, at least initially, and someone ANY ONE could have maybe thought, “How do we do this with less trampling and fewer oats?”

We could have, at that point, built a reasonable fixie, a direct drive bike like the original Draisine, feet to pedals. We had the wheels. We had the blacksmith skills. Hell, we could have made it out of copper. I don’t know. Imagine the leather-sandled hipsters of the second millennium BCE doing skids and twirly tricks in front of the Hanging Gardens. I wonder when homo sapiens invented the poseur.

We made the first metal chains around 225 BCE for flat-link chain drive crossbows. Two observations here. One, that’s badass. Two, we have chains, wheels, the need for transit, metal smithing skills, and the rich are already lording over the poor with their giant, tramply horses. What gives humanity?

The first gears appeared around the same time, maybe in multiple places across the globe, as if nearly everyone was waking up to the idea of rocking a full sus mountain bike out of the village, up the hill and onto some gnar single track, possibly for hunting purposes. But no. We built clocks and measuring devices and maybe even the first computer. The Greeks or Chinese really should have invented the bicycle. Quite how they left it to the French is beyond me.

As you might have guessed, not a lot happened in the first millennium CE. We had the Dark Ages, which is a polite name for some pretty dumb ages. Humanity reorganized itself into small, hierarchical farming communities. There were no skate parks. We were busy trying to live to sexual maturity and not get eaten by dragons. Distractions are no real excuse though.

Luckily, we had a renaissance, The Renaissance in fact. DaVinci envisioned all sorts of technology, reversible crank drives, etc., in his journals. He drew pictures of these ideas, taking already developed technologies and reconfiguring them into new applications. He dreamed up the helicopter. You had to keep things like that to yourself in the 15th century though. You might get burned at the stake, stoned to death, or even cast asunder. I’m not sure that that really means, but count me out. In fact, don’t cast me anywhere.

It’s nearly five thousand years since the wheel appeared, and we still don’t have bicycles. We can predict the orbits of the first 5 or 6 planets, but we can’t ride to the convenience store for a Slurpee and a SlimJim. You know how they say, ‘youth is wasted on the young?’ Well, sentience was probably wasted on the sentient.

The Draisine, or Dandy Horse

In 1817 we finally get the Draisine from Baron Karl Drais, which is just a balance bike. We put on our strange, tight pants and our feathered caps and dashed about the countryside. I’ll be honest, I’m kinda surprised we didn’t quit at that point. The Draisine looks more like a punishment than a slick way to get around. Direct drive velocipedes were an improvement, barely. The Penny Farthing was amusing. I can only assume humans didn’t have collarbones then, cause the high-wheeler had ENDO written all over it, breeches and petticoats waving spasmodically in the air while boneless riders bounced face first off the not-yet-pavement.

Finally, in 1885, we get the safety bicycle, the object we mostly recognize as the modern forebear of the bikes we ride in circles, starting from our homes and ending up there too. Of course, wheels were still made of wood and/or iron at that point. John Boyd Dunlop, a veterinarian, didn’t invent pneumatic tires until 1888.

Imagine what the ancient Greeks would have done with those. Right. Not much probably.