The term originally referred to portions of a log which had been split lengthwise into four or six sections. The radial members of a wagon wheel were made by carving a spoke (from a log) into their finished shape. A spokeshave is a tool originally developed for this purpose. Eventually, the term spoke was more commonly applied to the finished product of the wheelwright's work, than to the materials he used.
In a simple wooden wheel, a load on the hub causes the wheel rim to flatten slightly against the ground as the lowermost wooden spoke shortens and compresses. The other wooden spokes show no significant change.
Wooden spokes are mounted radially. They are also dished, usually to the outside of the vehicle, to prevent wobbling. Also, the dishing allows the wheel to compensate for expansion of the spokes due to absorbed moisture by dishing more.
A variation on the wire-spoked wheel was Tioga's "Tension Disk", which appeared superficially to be a solid disk but was in fact constructed using the same principles as a normal tension-spoked wheel. Instead of individual wire spokes, a continuous thread of Kevlar (aramid) was used to lace the hub to the rim under high tension. The threads were encased in a translucent disk for protection and some aerodynamic benefit, but this was not a structural component.
For explanations, computer models, and tests confirming this odd behavior, see The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt, and Figure 10 in http://www.duke.edu/~hpgavin/papers/HPGavin-Wheel-Paper.pdf, which all show the lower spokes of pre-tensioned bicycle wheels losing their pre-tension as they roll under a loaded hub.
Wire wheels, with their excellent weight to strength ratio, soon became popular for light vehicles. For everyday cars, wire wheels were soon replaced by the less expensive metal disc wheel, but wire wheels remained popular for sports cars up to the 1960s. Spoked wheels are still popular on motorcycles.
When building a bicycle wheel, the spokes must have the right length. If the spokes are too short, they can not be tightened. If they are too long they will touch the rim tape, possibly puncturing the tire.
Regarding a: For a symmetric wheel such as a front wheel with no disc brake, this is half the distance between the flanges. For an asymmetric wheel such as a front wheel with disc brake or a rear wheel with chain derailleur, the value of a is different for the left and right sides.
α is the angle between the radius through the hub hole and the radius through the corresponding spoke hole. The angle between hub hole radii is 360°/m (for evenly spaced holes). For each crossing, one spoke hole further down the hub is used, multiplying the angle by the number of crossings k. For example, a 32 spoke wheel has 16 spokes per side, 360° divided by 16 equals 22.5°. Multiply 22.5° (one cross) by the number of crossings to get the angle - if 3-cross, the 32 spoke wheel has an angle α of 67.5 degrees.
For radially spoked wheels, the formula simplifies to
The spoke length formula computes the length of the space diagonal of an imaginary rectangular box. Imagine holding a wheel in front of you such that a nipple is at the top. Look at the wheel from along the axis. The spoke through the top hole is now a diagonal of the imaginary box. The box has a depth of a, a height of r2-r1cos(α) and a width of r1sin(α).
Equivalently, the law of cosines may be used to first compute the length of the spoke as projected on the wheel's plane (as illustrated in the diagram), followed by an application of the Pythagorean theorem.