Why reinvent the wheel?

AramcoWorld July/August 2017

Asked to name the greatest invention ever, nine times out of 10 most people might say, "The wheel, of course." And how was it invented? "Why, it started thousands of years ago, with log rollers, and when someone cut off the end of one, you got a wheel."

Then the technology spread, and it changed the world, right? Its taken-for-granted simplicity has become the modern cliché, “Why reinvent the wheel?”

But actually, where and when was the wheel invented first? And what impact did it really have? Perhaps it began in Eastern Europe, in the Carpathian Mountains, around 3600 bce, when mineworkers, exhausted by lugging baskets of copper ore out of tunnels and trenches, put them on a plank fitted with four wooden disks and began rolling them—very roughly no doubt—to the mine’s entrance.

That’s the hypothesis of Richard W. Bulliet, who had taught both Middle Eastern history and the history of technology at Columbia University from 1976 to 2015 and last year authored The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions. His book takes on several generally accepted theories, starting with the long-held belief that the wheel came out of Mesopotamia. Despite the wheel’s almost elemental simplicity, it turns out that its pedigree follows, we might say, a very long and winding road—and not even just one road. The closer one looks, the more its origins and history are fraught with conjecture—enough to generate countless papers and numerous books.

Over email exchanges early this year, I moderated a discussion of the wheel among Bulliet and three leading experts in the history and the archeology of technology.

We took up four of Bulliet’s most contentious ideas.

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Why reinvent the wheel?

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