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Railroad building was both a showcase for the might of the Industrial Revolution and a spur toward further invention. While crews blew holes through mountains with nitroglycerine, inventors worked on a better way to make steel for stronger, straighter rails. Why was all of this exploding and inventing necessary in the first place? The problem was primitive wheels.

Trains can make only the slightest turns because they run on “wheelsets,” in which wheels are fixed at either end of an axle and all three components rotate together. For a vehicle to handle tighter curves, its outer wheel must be able to rotate faster than its inner wheel or, better yet, pivot at a slightly different angle — neither of which a train’s wheelsets allow.


That’s why railroad tracks couldn’t be built along the course of windy, old roads. Straight, new pathways were blasted across the country.

Despite the current ubiquity of wheels and their frequent citation as humans’ greatest invention, they are not well understood as a technology or a historical force, argues historian Richard Bulliet in his new book “The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions.”

During the 5,000 years between the appearance of the first wheels and the rise of trains and automobiles, wheeled vehicles were slow to develop, limited in use, and contained to their specific geographic contexts.

Ideas spoke with Bulliet by phone from his home in New York City.

Below is an edited excerpt:

IDEAS: Has the wheel always been revered?

BULLIET: There is no indication that anyone thought the wheel was the world’s greatest invention. This is a kind of a modern industrial myth. The book explores where the myth came from and why it does not comport with the actual history of the wheel, or with the history of not using the wheel, since so many societies didn’t use wheels.


IDEAS: For those that did though, where did they come from?

BULLIET: For 90,000 years or so humans carried things, or they put them on the backs of animals. The new challenge for transportation that made the wheel particularly sensible was the rise of copper mining in Eastern Europe. Mines didn’t have any grass, didn’t have any bushes or trees. It was a flat surface inside of a mountain and so the wheel could go pretty much in a straight line. The first wheels could not turn corners; they had to go in a straight line.

Outside of mines, that kind of non-rotating wheel disappeared, for the most part, fairly soon and was replaced with wheels that rotated independently at the ends of axles. But within the mines that type of wheel — the wheelset — continued in use until the 20th century. Even though it didn’t work for traveling over land very well, within the context of the mine that earliest type of wheel was very successful.

IDEAS: What happened when wheels began to rotate independently?

BULLIET: Our evidence comes from wheeled vehicles or wheeled wagons that are buried along with their owners. The prevailing view has been that once the wheel was invented it was useful for farming purposes and you could carry lumber or leather goods or pots full of grain or something. But then why would you bury somebody with it?

Usually in these burials, the wagon is the most important thing. They bury not only the wagon but the animals that pulled the wagons. The burial of vehicles along with their owners continues in Europe and is associated with sort of a noble burial. So I don’t think that these are farm wagons. It’s more likely these were wagons that people were using as homes.


Up until 1800, nomads in the zone from north of the Black Sea in Ukraine across to Mongolia are moving their homes around on wheels. And since no nomads anywhere else in the world used wheels for their homes, this was very likely an inheritance from the earliest use of wheels in this area. I think this is something that goes back to the very origin of the wheel.

IDEAS: Are we talking about solitary wagoneers or groups?

BULLIET: Leaving aside military campaigns by modern armies, the greatest assemblages of civilian wheeled vehicles in history were the mobile towns of the Mongols. You would have thousands of two-wheeled vehicles and, for the larger structures, four-wheeled vehicles being used to change from one location to another. And the vehicles were all controlled by women. At the top would be the wife or wives of the major commanders or princes, and they would have very large homes for themselves on wheels — say a circular home maybe 30 feet in diameter. That would fill the street if we had it here. When they changed camp it would be like picking up an entire small town, including the buildings, and moving them to another location.


IDEAS: But the Mongols were outliers. In other parts of the world, the wheel was adopted sporadically, if at all. Why?

BULLIET: Wheeled vehicles in general are not very common anywhere prior to the 18th century. They are difficult to make, they are expensive, and their utility is not all that clear.

Farmers used carts to bring in goods. It’s assumed that for a farm you’d have a cart, but even there, farms in America right down to the early 20th century almost all had one or more sledges, which were platforms on runners. Because if you were going to bring in a log from the woodlot, you didn’t have a road that went to the middle of your woodlot. If you wanted to go out to your fields carrying a heavy load like a tree, a sledge made much more sense than trying to move wheels over that rough ground. A wheel could bump up against a little ridge or something that would impede its passage.

IDEAS: From the perspective of wheeled technology, the “carriage revolution” in Europe was the herald for the automobile age. Why did it happen there?

BULLIET: In 1400, the upper class in Europe did not ride in wheeled vehicles. They rode on horses. It was appropriate to the status of being a knight. By 1620 or 1630, British and other European nobleman were almost all having carriages built. The carriages very rapidly become evidence of the wealth and pretensions of the upper class. Carriages become extremely fancy with numerous horses and carriage drivers and attendants and so forth.


So the question is why did that jump occur after 1450, and here I have a conjecture, which is based on the fact that the carriage revolution coincides with the spread of a word not previously known for a carriage, and that is the word “coach.” That word is unquestionably of Hungarian origination because it derives from the name of a town on the highway between Budapest and Vienna. The coach is distinctive not because of its technological advance, but because it’s a vehicle for men. That seems to come out of the military context of Eastern Europe at that time, where with the rise of gunpowder you had certain military people who saw the advantage of putting guns in wagons. You have wagons where someone has a small cannon inside and he would shoot out through a wooden porthole in the side of the wagon, but that had to be four-wheeled.

IDEAS: Sort of like a Humvee for the gentry.

BULLIET: The European noblemen always were interested in the latest thinking in terms of how to fight a war. So it was the military utility of wheeled vehicles that became apparent in the Eastern European frontier and that stimulated the idea of noblemen riding in carriages. That then developed its own momentum because of the fact that, like luxury vehicles today, the wheeled vehicle is a great way to show off.

IDEAS: If Westerners were so obsessed with carriages, how did they end up inventing railroads before cars?

BULLIET: Logically, it would have culminated with putting an engine on a carriage, but they couldn’t solve the steering problem. So instead they put the engine on a mine cart and created a railroad.

It sets up this competition that we have down to the present day between vehicles on rails and vehicles on roads. Now, the road to us seems, with our smooth highways, like an obvious way to use wheeled vehicles. And yet the substantial deal of friction between the tire and the pavement means that there’s a lot more loss of energy than there is on a railroad, where a steel wheel and a steel rail just has so much less rolling resistance. It’s more efficient to use a railroad if you are carrying very heavy loads.

It goes back to the origin of the early wheel in Europe. The heavy load of the copper ore makes the mine cars originally make sense, and the heavy load of the coal cars in 1820 makes the railroad make sense.

In the 20th century, the development of the semi-trailer truck becomes so important because it distributes the weight of the engine and load of the truck over the front wheels of the cab, the back wheels of the cab and the back wheels of the trailer. Therefore the wear on the highway is much better distributed with a semi-trailer truck, so the trucking industry really takes off.

The interesting thing is the way in which problems back in 3,000 B.C. become important issues in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Kelly O’Brien can be reached at kelly.obrien@globe.com.