George Stimpson

His life and works

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Who invented the wheel?

Without the wheel, mechanical and industrial civilization would be impossible, and yet nobody knows when, where or by whom this all-important device was invented. The wheel and axle is an elabor­ation of the principle of the lever, the simplest of all devices for transmitting and modifying motion. Wheels antedate authentic history, perhaps by many thousands of years, and when and by what people they were first used probably will never be known. Fragmentary inscriptions indicate that the principle of the wheel was known to the ancient Chinese, Babylonians and Egyptians. Some authorities are inclined to believe that the wheel in its crudest form may have been known a hundred thousand years ago. The potter's wheel was employed in the Bronze Age many thousands of years before the birth of Christ. A chariot excavated in Assyria is believed to date back to 3200 or 3300 B.C. In Genesis 41 it is related that Pharaoh made Joseph "to ride in the second chariot which he had," and further on in the same Biblical book we are told that the Egyptian king supplied "wagons" for bringing Jacob and his family of sixty-five out of the land of Canaan into Egypt. The Hebrew agaloth, rendered "wagon" and "chariot" in the English Bible, stems from a root meaning "to be round" or "to roll" and signifies "wheeled carriage." Perhaps long before that period the Egyptians and Assyrians used wheels with spokes. Generally the early wheels made by these peoples had six spokes, while those made by the Greeks and Romans a few thousand years later had as many as eight. No doubt the original wheel was merely a flat disk of stone or wood with a hole through the center for the axle. Such wheels are still employed by certain backward peoples. Possibly different peoples in different parts of the world, without intercourse with one another, discovered the principle of [page 78] the wheel. Very likely primitive man stumbled upon the idea quite by accident. Still the invention or discovery of the wheel must have represented a decisive forward step in the march of civilization. Many primitive peoples never developed wheels until they came into con­tact with more advanced nations. In Mexico and elsewhere in th New World nations flowered and reached a high degree of civilization without any knowledge of the wheel. The American Indian, who har­nessed dogs to draw sledges and travois, did not have the crudest wagon, cart or wheelbarrow; and the more advanced Incas of Peru, who employed the alpaca for draught purposes, never devised a car­riage of any kind. Who first used the wheelbarrow is not definitely known, but its invention is generally ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Italian painter, sculptor, architect, scientist and engineer who is said to have substituted a wheel for one man in the old hand­barrow, which consisted of a box with handles for two men.