See R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology (1955); E. Tunis, Wheels (1955); W. Owen et al., ed., Wheels (1972).
A wheel is a circular device that is capable of rotating on its axis, facilitating movement or transportation whilst supporting a load (mass), or performing labour in machines. A wheel, together with an axle overcomes friction by facilitating motion by rolling. In order for wheels to rotate, a moment needs to be applied to the wheel about its axis, either by way of gravity, or by application of another external force. Common examples are found in transport applications. More generally the term is also used for other circular objects that rotate or turn, such as a Ship's wheel, steering wheel and flywheel.
Most authorities regard the wheel as one of the oldest and most important inventions, which originated in ancient Mesopotamia in the 5th millennium BC (Ubaid period), originally in the function of potter's wheels. Near the northern side of the Caucasus several graves were found, in which since 3700 BC people had been buried on wagons or carts (both types). The earliest depiction of what may be a wheeled vehicle (here a wagon—four wheels, two axles), is on the Bronocice pot, a ca. 3500 BC clay pot excavated in southern Poland.
The wheel reached Europe and Western Asia in the 4th millennium BC, and the Indus Valley by the 3rd millennium BC. In China, the wheel is certainly present with the adoption of the chariot in ca. 1200 BC, although Barbieri-Low (2000) argues for earlier Chinese wheeled vehicles, circa 2000 BC. Whether there was an independent "invention of the wheel" in East Asia or whether the concept made its way there after jumping the Himalayan barrier remains an open question.
Although they did not develop the wheel proper, the Olmec and certain other western hemisphere cultures seem to have approached it, as wheel-like worked stones have been found on objects identified as children's toys dating to about 1500 BC.
The invention of the wheel thus falls in the late Neolithic, and may be seen in conjunction with the other technological advances that gave rise to the early Bronze Age. Note that this implies the passage of several wheel-less millennia even after the invention of agriculture. Looking back even further, it is of some interest that although paleoanthropologists now date the emergence of anatomically modern humans to ca.150,000 years ago, 143,000 of those years were "wheel-less". That people with capacities fully equal to our own walked the earth for so long before conceiving of the wheel may be initially surprising, but populations were extremely small through most of this period and the wheel, which requires an axle and socket to actually be useful, is not as simple a device as it may seem. Making and balancing a wheel requires a skilled wheelwright.
Early wheels were simple wooden disks with a hole for the axle. Because of the structure of wood a horizontal slice of a trunk is not suitable, as it does not have the structural strength to support weight without collapsing; rounded pieces of longitudinal boards are required. The spoked wheel was invented more recently, and allowed the construction of lighter and swifter vehicles. The earliest known examples are in the context of the Andronovo culture, dating to ca 2000 BC. Shortly later, horse cultures of the Caucasus region used horse-drawn spoked-wheel war chariots for the greater part of three centuries. They moved deep into the Greek peninsula where they joined with the existing Mediterranean peoples to give rise, eventually, to classical Greece after the breaking of Minoan dominance and consolidations led by pre-classical Sparta and Athens. Celtic chariots introduced an iron rim around the wheel in the 1st millennium BC. The spoked wheel had been in continued use without major modification until the 1870s CE, when wire wheels and pneumatic tires were invented.
The invention of the wheel has also been important for technology in general, important applications including the water wheel, the cogwheel (see also antikythera mechanism), the spinning wheel, and the astrolabe or torquetum. More modern descendants of the wheel include the propeller, the jet engine, the flywheel (gyroscope) and the turbine.
The wheel is not a machine, and should not be confused with the wheel and axle, one of the simple machines. A driven wheel is a special case, that is a wheel and axle. Note that wheels predate driven wheels by about 6000 years.
Wheels are used in conjunction with axles, either the wheel turns on the axle, or the axle turns in the object body. The mechanics are the same in either case.
The low resistance to motion (compared to dragging) is explained as follows (refer to friction):
Bearings are used to reduce friction at the interface.
Additional energy is lost at the wheel to road interface. This is termed rolling resistance which is predominantly a deformation loss.
The wheel has also become a strong cultural and spiritual metaphor for a cycle or regular repetition (see chakra, reincarnation, Yin and Yang among others). As such and because of the difficult terrain, wheeled vehicles were forbidden in old Tibet.
The introduction of spoked (chariot) wheels in the Middle Bronze Age appear to have carried somewhat of a prestige. The solar wheel appears to have a significance in Bronze Age religion, replacing the earlier concept of a Solar barge with the more "modern" and technologically advanced solar chariot.
The wheel is also the prominent figure on the flag of India. The wheel in this case represents law (dharma). It also appears in the flag of the Romani people, hinting to their nomadic history and their Indian origins.
In recent times, the custom aftermarket car/automobile roadwheel has become a status symbol. These wheels are often incorrectly referred to as "rims". The term "rim" is incorrect because the rim is only the outer portion of a wheel (where the tire is mounted), just as with a coffee cup or meteor crater. These "rims" have a great deal of variation, and are often highly polished and very shiny. Some custom "rims" include a bearing-mounted, free-spinning disc which continues to rotate by inertia after the automobile is stopped. In slang, these are referred to as "Spinners".