For a long time, scientists didn’t know who invented the wheel. It seemed like a simple enough idea—a circular object that rotates on an axle. But this basic technology is much more complex than it first seems, and it didn’t just change human transportation, but also farming, war, and even languages.
There’s no way to know who had the original idea for a wheel, but archeological evidence dates the first wheels to around 4000-3500 BC in Mesopotamia. These weren’t the stone age or paleolithic inventions that we usually associate with early humans, but rather a Bronze Age development, after people had already established agriculture and developed cities.
Inventing the wheel was not easy. It required understanding and building large structures—as well as developing road infrastructure, domesticating animals that could pull chariots, and even learning how to make the wheels lighter. It’s possible that the wheel was first conceived and tested long before these other factors came into play, but once it became widely adopted, it helped civilizations expand at an incredible pace.
Today, the world is full of wheels, including those on Ferris wheels that tower over cities and fairgrounds. But those aren’t the same as the ones that first appeared during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a structural engineer from Pittsburgh who inspected the steel for the event.
You’ve heard the idiom “to reinvent the wheel”—used as an admonishment against someone who is trying to duplicate something that has already been created. But there’s a more positive version of the phrase: “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” For example, don’t waste your life by trying to create a schedule that makes no sense.