Published on the Doomstead Diner on August 11, 2013
Discuss this article at the Science, Technology & Inventions Table inside the Diner
I had an Epiphany the other day regarding the Invention of one of the most seminal devices ever to come out of the brain of Homo Sapiens, the Wheel.
To modern Homo Sapiens, this device seems so simple and so useful that one has to wonder why it took so damn long to invent in the first place. The first Wheels don't turn up until around 4000 BC, and they really didn't get a whole lot of use until around 3500 BC. Over here in the Americas, the early civilizations of Natives NEVER got the Wheel, it didn't show up here until after the European Invasion.
Now, all sorts of theories are proposed on why Wheels were not used earlier, one popular one is that it took the Domestication of Draft Animals to make it really useful. This does not seem likely to me, since the use of the Wheel makes even the labor of Homo Sapiens much more effective. Try moving around a decent amount of dirt without a Wheel Barrow after Digging a Big Hole of course.
As far as the Incas and other early civilizations are concerned, another reason proposed is that the Terrain they lived around wasn't suited to wheels, too mountainous. There is probably some truth to that, but they also did have some flat land around, and they could have built roads too that wheels could work on even in mountainous terrain. Switchbacks, as they are referred to.
The development of the wheel as elucidated by anthropologists goes like this:
The wheel is everywhere on all our cars, trains, planes, machines, wagons, and most factory and farm equipment. What could we move without wheels? But as important as the wheel is as an invention, we don't know who exactly made the first wheel.
The oldest wheel found in archeological excavations was discovered in what was Mesopotamia and is believed to be over fifty-five hundred years old.
Development of a Functional Wheel
The following steps and developments took place to invent a functioning wheel, more or less in this order:
This is Heavy
Humans realized that heavy objects could be moved easier if something round, for example a fallen tree log, was placed under it and the object rolled over it.
Humans also realized a way to move heavy objects, with an invention archeologists call the sledge. Logs or sticks were placed under an object and used to drag the heavy object, like a sled and a wedge put together.
Humans thought to use the round logs and a sledge together.
Humans used several logs or rollers in a row, dragging the sledge over one roller to the next.
Inventing a Primitive Axle
With time the sledges started to wear grooves into the rollers and humans noticed that the grooved rollers actually worked better, carrying the object further. This was simple physics, if the grooves had a smaller circumference than the unworn parts of the roller, then dragging the sledge in the grooves required less energy to create a turning motion but created a greater distance covered when the larger part of the log roller turned.
The log roller was becoming a wheel, humans cut away the wood between the two inner grooves to create what is called an axle.
Wooden pegs were used to fix the sledge, so that when it rested on the rollers it did not move, but allowed the axle to turn in-between the pegs, the axle and wheels now created all the movement. These were the first carts.
Improvements to the cart were made. The pegs were replaced with holes carved into the cart frame, the axle was placed through the hole. This made it necessary for the larger wheels and thinner axle to be separate pieces. The wheels were attached to both sides of the axle.
(Note from RE: HERE comes the Inflexion Point!)
Fixed Axles Make a Functional & Successful Wheel
Next, the fixed axle was invented, where the axle does not turn but is solidly connected to the cart frame. Only the wheels did the revolving by being fitted onto the axle in a way that allowed the wheels to rotate. Fixed axles made for stable carts that could turn corners better. By this time the wheel can be considered a complete invention. The rest is history…
So why did it take so long for the Wheel to come into common usage, and why first in the place it did, around Mesopotamia around 3500 BC or so? The reason I came up with in my Epiphany is FRICTION.
A wheel has to turn on an Axle, and at the bearing point where the Wheel Spins on the Axle, there is tremendous friction going on, all concentrated down into this one spot. Unless you have some means to reduce that friction, this spot is going to get very, VERY HOT as the wheel spins about. at least at any decent speed or for any length of time.
So imagine how hard it would be to make a working Wheel & Axle combination without Metallurgy. All you really have to work with is Wood, Bone and Stone.
If you try to make your Wheel out of Wood and Axle out of wood, without some really good Lubricant after just a little rolling around it is going to go ON FIRE! Same idea as Spinning a Fire Drill of course. Pasting it with some Bear Grease probably keeps it from lighting up long as you move slowly enough with it, but the joint still will wear out pretty rapidly.
So how about substituting Stone in some way? Not really possible since it fractures so easily, even if you could carve the wheels and axles out of Rocks, Flintstone style. Soon as you hit a decent size Pothole or Rock wheeling your Wagon about, something is gonna crack. Bone also is pretty Brittle, so the same basic problem using this material, and it also does burn and will wear out quickly with this much friction.
Check out the Flintstones Car at right here and look at that joint between the Axle and the Car Frame. Tell me this is not a Fire in the Making if Fred gets going here at any speed at all. LOL.
The first Wheeled Vehicles of any sort don't turn up in the artwork until around 4000BC in Mesopotamia, just around the time Ceramics were getting made, and just as the Bronze Age was about to take off in this neighborhood. They got there FIRST with the technology for smelting these metals and making some Useful Tools out of them.
So one can imagine here that these early agricultural societies had an idea about how the Wheel works, they just could not build an effective one until they had the other technologies of making ceramics first and then bronze directly after that. Perhaps in the earliest versions they used Clay dried around the would, then smeared with grease to keep the friction down. Once the Bronze was invented, they could wrap the wooden axle with a Bronze Sheath, put a similar sheath around the inside of the Wheel Center, then again Grease it up to keep the Friction low enough not to get the Temps high enough to ignite the underlying Wood base.
So now they finally have enough Technologies together to make a Working Wheel/Axle combination, but it is still not real Useful for anything but some real slow moving about of stuff on pretty flat land. So the Wheel is pretty slow to take off here as an invention, it does not take off as fast as Iphones for instance. LOL. In fact it took a good 1500 years or so for the Wheel to find its first real good use, in Warfare of course with the Chariot. Chariots first got invented around 2000BC, but again don't really hit stride until about 1300BC, which is a very significant date for another Inventive Reason. What is that?
1300BC ALSO generally marks the beginning of the IRON AGE in this same neck of the woods! Iron was a huge jump over Bronze, it is much harder and more durable, and can be hammerred into shape by a Blacksmith besides being Cast. So this is when they finally had a material strong enough and malleable enough to make an Axle out of that would handle the pretty high speeds of being dragged along by a Galloping Horse. Whatever Army had a bunch of these early Tanks could literally Roll over the combatants on foot and outflank them as well.
So you can see in this very basic Invention how dependent it was on a slew of other Technologies to become workable, and beyond that how dependent it was on Available Energy to smelt the metals and to forge them into the right shapes necessary to make a fully functional Chariot, capable of high speed (for the day) travel.
What does this mean for the Future of Homo Sapiens, in a world where energy will by quite scarce to come by, especially in the quantities necessary to do heat intensive tasks like smelting metals? It means in all likelihood that over time, even assuming we survive Climate Change, that even the Basic Invention of the Wheel will fall into disuse, for lack of materials and energy to create a working one.
If you are believer enough in the Promise of Renewable Energy sources, using concentrated Solar for instance to create enough heat to smelt metals, perhaps you believe this day will never come to pass. However, it is quite easy to see why it could be real difficult to make metal smelting completely Renewable from Solar Energy.
If you talk about TODAY, you probably could build a Solar Heat collecting plant that would focus down enough heat on a single target to get temps high enough to smelt metal. Utilize big Fresnel Lenses, build huge concave reflectors in the desert, etc. However, the big lenses you need and the large concave reflectors also take metal and/or glass and plastics to create, so they themselves are dependent these days on fossil fuel energy to make.
Then you have to imagine the problem of mining the ore, or even scavenging the metal from Skyscrapers to reform in these new Renewable plants and then Transporting said TONS of material to wherever this plant is located without fossil fuels. Maybe you could keep a well built Plant you build today in operation for 50 or even 100 years, but could you keep building new ones and keep getting the materials to them to keep making enough "stuff" to build new replacement plants AND have leftover energy enough to drive a mining and transportation system that delivers the Raw Materials to your Renewable Energy Metalworking Plant? Seems pretty hard to imagine, especially as Trade begins to break down and you need to work with all LOCAL MATERIALS.
Imagine you are Bear Grylls or Eustace Conway or Urban Scout Peter Michael Bauer or some other super duper independent type who at least by the Hype can survive anywhere. Could Bear or Eustace or PMB make a working Wheel/Axle combination with JUST what whas available to him out in the Bush? I'll even give all of them a nice Hunting Knife, Hatchet and Campsaw made of Metal to start with! Might be able to make a somewhat functional Wheelbarrow to move around dirt at low speeds, but nothing past that really without stronger and more resilient materials that nature does not provide.
The Wheel as a functional unit with the Axle is not a BASIC technology, though it is defined as one of the Simple Machines along with the Lever, the Incline Plane, Pulley and Screw. It is a COMPOSITE technology, which can only function by utilizing some other technologies (metal working particularly) that are highly ENERGY DEPENDENT! Unless some very effective substitute technologies get invented/implemented that do NOT depend on burning a lot of fossil fuels and/or trees, metal working goes Bye-Bye and then so does the Wheel!
Now, I am not saying this is gonna happen Overnight, and at least the way the Temps seem to be climbing here, there is a good chance we will be Extinct before we see this fully play itself out. The Axles that can be scavenged off of Dead Cars and Trucks to use for your Oxen Drawn Cart or Wagon are likely good for a Century or two if well cared for. However, in the absence of copious Available Energy to work metal, the Wheel is HISTORY here as one of our Inventions that disappears, along with the I-phones, Plasma TVs and Nuke Power Plants. These suckers will of course disappear a bit faster than the wheel does, and the biggest reason for all of that is what David Korowicz discusses with Supply Chain issues in our Podcast, and in his papers on Financial Contagion. Just one small part like an O-Ring manufactured far away in a Factory on another Continent can shut down yet another factory producing wheel spokes, and that then shuts down the wheel factory in yet another country. If you cannot access ALL the parts necessary for production of ANYTHING, once the Global Supply Chain collapses, you are SOL manufacturing whatever it is you make, from Wheels to Iphones.
In the near term for the Doomer, the thing to figure is what you can reasonably build with what you can SCAVENGE locally, and what you have resources to REPAIR locally. Then you have to calculate how much Energy it will take to repair said technology, and whether the ROI on repairing it is worth the expenditure of said energy. Do you Burn a Forest to repair and reform Broken Axles made of Steel? Is it WORTH it, or do you do without the Wheel here?
Most really high tech stuff will be completely irreperable once broken, you can't make a new Motherboard for your Laptop locally of course no matter what materials might be available in the neighborhood. The more basic technologies can be repaired for a significant time period in theory, but even those will be difficult to keep working.
Accessing Energy early on in the development of Civilization underpins ALL the inventions we use to live the kind of Lifestyle we do. Absent the availability of copious energy, this form of living cannot persist. It goes the way of the Dinosaur when the Energy resources do, and they are already well into decline. No indication as of this writing that renewables can substitute effectively in the multitude of areas necessary to keep the supply chain integrity intact. So in all likelihood, when it does Collapse, it will Collapse FAST, in a Cascade Failure.
Best Bet? Learn to live SIMPLE now, do with as little Tech as you can. Learn to Scavenge and Repair. This probably works for the next generation. After that… in the Words of Mr. Spock…Stone Knives and Bear Skins, and no WHEELS either.