In its primitive form, a wheel is a circular block of a hard and durable material at whose center has been bored a hole through which is placed an axle bearing about which the wheel rotates when torque is applied to the wheel about its axis. The wheel and axle assembly can be considered one of the six simple machines. When placed vertically under a load-bearing platform or case, the wheel turning on the horizontal axle makes it possible to transport heavy loads. This arrangement is the main topic of this article, but there are many other applications of a wheel addressed in the corresponding articles: when placed horizontally, the wheel turning on its vertical axle provides the spinning motion used to shape materials (e.g. a potter's wheel); when mounted on a column connected to a rudder or to the steering mechanism of a wheeled vehicle, it can be used to control the direction of a vessel or vehicle (e.g. a ship's wheel or steering wheel); when connected to a crank or engine, a wheel can store, release, or transmit energy (e.g. the flywheel). A wheel and axle with force applied to create torque at one radius can translate this to a different force at a different radius, also with a different linear velocity.
The English word wheel comes from the Old English word hweol, hweogol, from Proto-Germanic *hwehwlan, *hwegwlan, from Proto-Indo-European *kwekwlo-, an extended form of the root *kwel- "to revolve, move around". Cognates within Indo-European include Icelandic hjól "wheel, tyre", Greek kúklos, and Sanskrit chakra, the latter two both meaning "circle" or "wheel".
The place and time of an "invention" of the wheel remains unclear, because the oldest hints do not guarantee the existence of real wheeled transport, or are dated with too much scatter. The invention of the wheel has been credited to the Elamites because their sculptures are the earliest to portray it. The invention of the solid wooden disk wheel falls into the late Neolithic, and may be seen in conjunction with other technological advances that gave rise to the early Bronze Age. This implies the passage of several wheel-less millennia even after the invention of agriculture and of pottery, during the Aceramic Neolithic.
The Halaf culture of 6500-5100 BC is sometimes credited with the earliest depiction of a wheeled vehicle, but this is doubtful as there is no evidence of Halafians using either wheeled vehicles or even pottery wheels. Precursors of wheels, known as "tournettes" or "slow wheels", were known in the Middle East by the 5th millennium BC. One of the earliest examples was discovered at Tepe Pardis, Iran, and dated to 5200-4700 BC. These were made of stone or clay and secured to the ground with a peg in the center, but required significant effort to turn. True potter's wheels, which are freely-spinning and have a wheel and axle mechanism, were developed in Mesopotamia (Iraq) by 4200-4000 BC. The oldest surviving example, which was found in Ur (modern day Iraq), dates to approximately 3100 BC.
The oldest indirect evidence of wheeled movement was found in the form of miniature clay wheels north of the Black Sea before 4000 B.C. From the middle of the 4th millennium BC onwards, the evidence is condensed throughout Europe in the form of toy cars, depictions, or ruts. In Mesopotamia, depictions of wheeled wagons found on clay tablet pictographs at the Eanna district of Uruk, in the Sumerian civilization are dated to c. 3500-3350 BC. In the second half of the 4th millennium BC, evidence of wheeled vehicles appeared near-simultaneously in the Northern (Maykop culture) and South Caucasus (Early Kurgan culture) and Eastern Europe (Cucuteni-Trypillian culture). Depictions of a wheeled vehicle appeared between 3631 and 3380 BC in the Bronocice clay pot excavated in a Funnelbeaker culture settlement in southern Poland. In nearby Olszanica, a 2.2 m wide door was constructed for wagon entry; this barn was 40 m long with 3 doors, dated to 5000 B.C - 7000 years old, and belonged to neolithic Linear Pottery culture. Surviving evidence of a wheel-axle combination, from Stare Gmajne near Ljubljana in Slovenia (Ljubljana Marshes Wooden Wheel), is dated within two standard deviations to 3340-3030 BC, the axle to 3360-3045 BC. Two types of early Neolithic European wheel and axle are known; a circumalpine type of wagon construction (the wheel and axle rotate together, as in Ljubljana Marshes Wheel), and that of the Baden culture in Hungary (axle does not rotate). They both are dated to c. 3200-3000 BC. Some historians believe that there was a diffusion of the wheeled vehicle from the Near East to Europe around the mid-4th millennium BC.
Early wheels were simple wooden disks with a hole for the axle. Some of the earliest wheels were made from horizontal slices of tree trunks. Because of the uneven structure of wood, a wheel made from a horizontal slice of a tree trunk will tend to be inferior to one made from rounded pieces of longitudinal boards.
The spoked wheel was invented more recently and allowed the construction of lighter and swifter vehicles. The earliest known examples of wooden spoked wheels are in the context of the Sintashta culture, dating to c. 2000 BC (Krivoye Lake). Soon after this, horse cultures of the Caucasus region used horse-drawn spoked-wheel war chariots for the greater part of three centuries. They moved deep into the Greek peninsula where they joined with the existing Mediterranean peoples to give rise, eventually, to classical Greece after the breaking of Minoan dominance and consolidations led by pre-classical Sparta and Athens. Celtic chariots introduced an iron rim around the wheel in the 1st millennium BC.
In China, wheel tracks dating to around 2200 BC have been found at Pingliangtai, a site of the Longshan Culture. Similar tracks were also found at Yanshi, a city of the Erlitou culture, dating to around 1700 BC. The earliest evidence of spoked wheels in China comes from Qinghai, in the form of two wheel hubs from a site dated between 2000 and 1500 BC.
In Britain, a large wooden wheel, measuring about 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter, was uncovered at the Must Farm site in East Anglia in 2016. The specimen, dating from 1,100 to 800 BC, represents the most complete and earliest of its type found in Britain. The wheel's hub is also present. A horse's spine found nearby suggests the wheel may have been part of a horse-drawn cart. The wheel was found in a settlement built on stilts over wetland, indicating that the settlement had some sort of link to dry land.
Although large-scale use of wheels did not occur in the Americas prior to European contact, numerous small wheeled artifacts, identified as children's toys, have been found in Mexican archeological sites, some dating to approximately 1500 BC. It is thought that the primary obstacle to large-scale development of the wheel in the Americas was the absence of domesticated large animals that could be used to pull wheeled carriages. The closest relative of cattle present in Americas in pre-Columbian times, the American bison, is difficult to domesticate and was never domesticated by Native Americans; several horse species existed until about 12,000 years ago, but ultimately became extinct. The only large animal that was domesticated in the Western hemisphere, the llama, a pack animal, but not physically suited to use as a draft animal to pull wheeled vehicles, and use of the llama did not spread far beyond the Andes by the time of the arrival of Europeans.
Nubians from after about 400 BC used wheels for spinning pottery and as water wheels. It is thought that Nubian waterwheels may have been ox-driven. It is also known that Nubians used horse-drawn chariots imported from Egypt.
The spoked wheel was in continued use without major modification until the 1870s, when wire-spoked wheels and pneumatic tires were invented. Pneumatic tires can greatly reduce rolling resistance and improve comfort. Wire spokes are under tension, not compression, making it possible for the wheel to be both stiff and light. Early radially-spoked wire wheels gave rise to tangentially-spoked wire wheels, which were widely used on cars into the late 20th century. Cast alloy wheels are now more commonly used; forged alloy wheels are used when weight is critical.
The invention of the wheel has also been important for technology in general, important applications including the water wheel, the cogwheel (see also antikythera mechanism), the spinning wheel, and the astrolabe or torquetum. More modern descendants of the wheel include the propeller, the jet engine, the flywheel (gyroscope) and the turbine.
Ljubljana Marshes Wheel, from around 3150 BC (restored model of the oldest exactly radiocarbon dated wooden wheel part in the world).
Twentieth-century solid wheel made of wooden boards, bound with a metal wheel rim
A wheeled vehicle requires much less work to move than simply dragging the same weight. The low resistance to motion is explained based on the fact that the frictional work done is no longer at the surface the vehicle is traversing, but in the bearings. In the simplest and oldest case the bearing is just a round hole through which the axle passes (a "plain bearing"). Even with a plain bearing, the frictional work is greatly reduced because:
Additional energy is lost from the wheel-to-road interface. This is termed rolling resistance which is predominantly a deformation loss. It depends on the nature of the ground, of the material of the wheel, its inflation in the case of a tire, the net torque exerted by the eventual engine, and many other factors.
A wheel can also offer advantages in traversing irregular surfaces if the wheel radius is sufficiently large compared to the irregularities.
The wheel alone is not a machine, but when attached to an axle in conjunction with bearing, it forms the wheel and axle, one of the simple machines. A driven wheel is an example of a wheel and axle. Wheels pre-date driven wheels by about 6000 years, themselves an evolution of using round logs as rollers to move a heavy load--a practice going back in pre-history so far that it has not been dated.
The rim is the "outer edge of a wheel, holding the tire." It makes up the outer circular design of the wheel on which the inside edge of the tire is mounted on vehicles such as automobiles. For example, on a bicycle wheel the rim is a large hoop attached to the outer ends of the spokes of the wheel that holds the tire and tube.
The hub is the center of the wheel, and typically houses a bearing, and is where the spokes meet.
A hubless wheel (also known as a rim-rider or centerless wheel) is a type of wheel with no center hub. More specifically, the hub is actually almost as big as the wheel itself. The axle is hollow, following the wheel at very close tolerances.
A spoke is one of some number of rods radiating from the center of a wheel (the hub where the axle connects), connecting the hub with the round traction surface. The term originally referred to portions of a log which had been split lengthwise into four or six sections. The radial members of a wagon wheel were made by carving a spoke (from a log) into their finished shape. A spokeshave is a tool originally developed for this purpose. Eventually, the term spoke was more commonly applied to the finished product of the wheelwright's work, than to the materials used.
The rims of wire wheels (or "wire spoked wheels") are connected to their hubs by wire spokes. Although these wires are generally stiffer than a typical wire rope, they function mechanically the same as tensioned flexible wires, keeping the rim true while supporting applied loads.
Wire wheels are used on most bicycles and still used on many motorcycles. They were invented by aeronautical engineer George Cayley and first used in bicycles by James Starley. A process of assembling wire wheels is described as wheelbuilding.
A tire (in American English and Canadian English) or tyre (in some Commonwealth Nations such as UK, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) is a ring-shaped covering that fits around a wheel rim to protect it and enable better vehicle performance by providing a flexible cushion that absorbs shock while keeping the wheel in close contact with the ground. The word itself may be derived from the word "tie," which refers to the outer steel ring part of a wooden cart wheel that ties the wood segments together (see Etymology below).
The fundamental materials of modern tires are synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, along with other compound chemicals. They consist of a tread and a body. The tread provides traction while the body ensures support. Before rubber was invented, the first versions of tires were simply bands of metal that fitted around wooden wheels to prevent wear and tear. Today, the vast majority of tires are pneumatic inflatable structures, comprising a doughnut-shaped body of cords and wires encased in rubber and generally filled with compressed air to form an inflatable cushion. Pneumatic tires are used on many types of vehicles, such as cars, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, earthmovers, and aircraft.
While wheels are very widely used for ground transport, there are alternatives, some of which are suitable for terrain where wheels are ineffective. Alternative methods for ground transport without wheels include:
The wheel has also become a strong cultural and spiritual metaphor for a cycle or regular repetition (see chakra, reincarnation, Yin and Yang among others). As such and because of the difficult terrain, wheeled vehicles were forbidden in old Tibet. The wheel in ancient China is seen as a symbol of health and strength and utilized by some villages as a tool to predict future health and success. The diameter of the wheel is indicator of one's future health.
The winged wheel is a symbol of progress, seen in many contexts including the coat of arms of Panama, the logo of the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the State Railway of Thailand. The wheel is also the prominent figure on the flag of India. The wheel in this case represents law (dharma). It also appears in the flag of the Romani people, hinting to their nomadic history and their Indian origins.
The introduction of spoked (chariot) wheels in the Middle Bronze Age appears to have carried somewhat of a prestige. The sun cross appears to have a significance in Bronze Age religion, replacing the earlier concept of a Solar barge with the more 'modern' and technologically advanced solar chariot. The wheel was also a solar symbol for the Ancient Egyptians.
One of the great technological puzzles of Sub-Saharan African economic history is that wheeled transportation was barely used prior to the colonial period. Instead, head porterage was the main method of transportation.