A bicycle wheel’s single biggest accomplishment is simply being a wheel, a device that enables ultra-low friction terrestrial mobility. Unchallenged as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, it brought huge change to civilization upon its appearance.
This is a larger topic than you might think. What is a wheel, precisely? Why did it appear in Sumer and not sooner or later? Why are there none in nature? Is it a non-intuitive invention and who is the inventor? Why is it so popular? Why am I nominating the bicycle wheel as the most significant and evolved form of this contrivance? What does fulfilling this role,”being a wheel,” require of design?
The conversation has drawn some of the best minds of our times: evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, anthropologist and ecologist Jared Diamond, legendary British archeologist Stuart Piggott, and countless others: philosophers, engineers, sci-fi writers, and mechanics. A fabulous discussion of rotation in living systems is hosted on Wikipedia.
Most agree that wheels represent rotation around a fixed center, something unknown in nature. Rotation of a planet implies a theoretical center but it’s not part of the dynamic, just a concept. Rotation is not rolling. Many living things (and rocks) roll in obeisance to gravity, to travel, or to escape. But they do not have wheels. Recently, however, a quaint sidebar to the topic notes certain bacteria have this rotation. Read more →