Origins of the Wheel

Snow wheelIntroduction

Sometimes I feel compelled to espouse my hair-brained ideas with others. Since I have a web page, proliferating my crazy ideas is rather easy. I used to just bother everyone I knew in a physical sense, now I'm capable of wreaking much greater havoc. Spreading my rhetoric far and wide is extremely easy. Given a computer, a little HTML, and the Internet, I can propagate my preposterous postulations from this small corner of the world.

One such idea got into my head sometime in the later half of the 90's. I'd estimate it was 1996 or so. I was living in West Virginia at the time, and the mountains and valleys of the Shennandoah Valley were firmly in the grip of old man winter. My latest copy of Discover(tm) magazine arrived in the mail, and I started reading it. Eventually I came across a small article wherein the leading theory regarding the origins of the wheel were revealed. This article/theory went something like this...


Their Theory

The wheel came to be when primitive man saw a tree trunk rolling down a hill. Well, I thought to myself, that seems a bit preposterous. How often does one see a tree trunk rolling down a hill? I'd wager that the occurrences are extremely rare. I've spent many hours hiking through the woods, and I've never seen anything remotely resembling such a scene. Not that I think it couldn't happen mind you, I just doubt that it's all that common. For that matter, if a tree trunk rolls down a hill in a forest and no one sees it...

Let's examine some probabilities here.

First of all it must be a fallen tree. O.k. that's not hard to imagine. Although primitive man (how primitive are we talking about here?) may have had little reason to fell a tree, they are often felled by lightning and storms.

O.k. so a tree falls. Well, it's most likely in the midst of other trees, and it wouldn't go very far after running up against it's neighbors. Since these other trees might impede it's progress down the hill, let's assume it fell in a clearing or near the edge of a forest.

Alright, we have a fallen tree. Now it begins rolling. Wait a minute. Trees have limbs, that ought to ruin our party in a hurry. The trees limbs would easily prevent a tree from rolling down a hill. Something that lumberjacks are probably thankful for.

In order to do away with the limbs problem we have two options:

    One: The tree is so big, and it's branches so puny, that they snap off as the tree hit's the ground and begins rolling.

    Two: It's a rotted tree, an old dead tree who's limbs are weak and willing to snap off easily.

In both cases we can assume that the tree trunk will be able to roll down the hill unhindered by bothersome limbs. The circumstances are all rather tenuous. An old dead tree near the edge of a forest is struck by lightning. The weak feeble limbs remaining snap off easily as the tree slams to the ground.

Remaining intact, the tree then begins to roll down the side of the hill. Luckily the hill is featureless and even, providing an ideal surface for the trunks progress.

A primitive man sees this extraordinary site and is inspired by it. Going back to his dwelling he then begins work on the first wheel.

While this theory provides for a possible origin, I submit that it is not as probable as another theory. The theory that I came up with while traveling through the hills and valleys of West Virginia. I do not suppose that I'm the first one to come up with this theory. At least I hope not, given it's simplicity and in your face evidence. I'm not a rocket scientist, or a PHD of cultural existentialism. I'm simply an observer. I'm that primitive man. I saw something happen, and from the experience I easily inferred a basic idea.


My Theory

My theory is this. The origins of the wheel are rooted in primitive man's observations in a cold hilly/mountainous climate.

Snow is blown from a branch, or over a precipice. As this small kernel of snow rolls over the edge it begins to accumulate more snow. (Ever made a snow man?) This accumulation is self fuelled by inertial energy.

As the snow continues down the side of the hill it continues to pick up more snow. Curiously such an event produces a disc shape rather than a ball. The sides of the disc are weak, not being compacted by successive revolutions they fall off readily.

Sometimes the disc even comes complete with a hole in the center. I'm not exactly sure what dynamics conspire to create such an anomaly. It probably has something to do with the consistency of the snow and the slope of the hill.

I've seen these discs rolling down the sides of a hill totally unhindered. Leaving a rutted track in their wake, they continue rolling until they reach a level area.

Some of them fall over when their path curves right or left, but many make there way to the bottom of the hill. At the bottom of the hill is a yard of several wheels. Perfectly formed apparently waiting to be placed on a chariot and driven away.

My theory seems to be much more likely (at least it does to me). Primitive man would observe a complete and nearly perfect wheel rolling down a hill. He would not need to deduce that the tree would need to be cut into cross sections, nor would he need to put a hole in the middle. He could easily duplicate the event, and even see it happening many times over in the course of a day. The 'snow wheels' I observed were natural engineering at work. An incredible sight to behold. I've seen such wheels roll right into the roads, where drivers passing by would stare at them in mute silence, wondering at these works of nature. Simultaneously simple and complex.

I contend that the image of a fully formed wheel rolling down the side of a hill would have struck primitive man as something 'magical'. I believe this model of the wheel was the inspiration for the actual wheel. In trying to duplicate the 'magical' snow wheel, man (a smart enough one) would attempt to duplicate the thing in a more lasting form. The utility of the wheel followed it's form. After constructing the 'magical' device from a more durable substance (possibly even wood!), he would have demonstrated it to other people.

Being observed in a fully formed state and demonstrating it's own ability would have been pretty close to handing primitive man the 'keys' for a more permanent form - It wouldn't take long before utility would've followed form. Under no circumstances am I trying to say that the wheel came to be immediately after some primitive man saw a snow wheel. I am saying that nature provided the inspiration in shape, form and ability. Man made use of it, creating utility.

Some people have tried to say that the wheel came after logs were used to roll things on (a sledge with rollers). I disagree. The wheel has uses other than transportation. Consider these: Pottery wheel, Grindstone, Water wheel, and I'm sure there are other uses that I'm failing to mention. Invention of the wheel doesn't have to be followed immediately by innovation in transportation. My theory involves invention of the wheel, not it's application in transportation.

There is evidence that pottery wheels and the use of the wheel to grind grains/plants both occurred before the wheel was used in transportation applications. Additionally, I do contend that the observation of a snow wheel rolling down a hill may well have led to inspiration for the use of the wheel in transportation. It may be something that no one will ever be able to prove, but it's my theory.

A log is not a wheel. A spear is not a knife. I contend that the inspiration for the 'Wheel' came from man's observation of a natural event. Utility followed form later.


I decided to write this paper while I was living in Northern Japan. I had recently spotted the phenomena anew, and realized that now (With my web page) was the time to promulgate this theory. I told many of my co-workers. Some scoffed, and insisted that the log rolling down a hill was a more likely scenario. Others agreed with my simplistic view easily grokking the new idea, yet others simply smiled, thinking to themselves.. 'Smile at the idiot, maybe he'll go away'. Later I went snowshoeing in the Hakkoda's. A mountain range North West of Misawa Japan. While on the trip, I took pictures of the very phenomena I'm talking about. If I had been there for the express purpose of supporting this theory, I would have taken many more pictures. But I think that the few I took will easily impart to you the simplicity of this theorem.

Perhaps this theory will become widespread, and accepted as a more logical origin of the wheel. If not, you can just write me off as a crackpot like those with the stupid smile on their face.

If you would like to comment on my theory please feel free to send me an email at the address shown below.

By the way, I made no effort to determine whether this theory had been put forth previously. I'm assuming that it has. How could something so readily apparent go unnoticed by everyone but me?

Robert L. Vaessen


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