The Invention of the Wheel

            So we have a wagon of sorts. Probably a one wheel upgrade of a travois, two long poles tied to an draft animal with the long ends tied together in a point that drags on the ground. Instead of dragging the poles on the ground, there is a crude wheel. It keeps breaking but even so, it can carry a larger load for longer distances before it needs repair. Each repair teaches it’s inventor a bit more about how to make it last. I can’t imagine whether it was invented by a man or woman. I do imagine that in those days women weren’t put on a pedestal and treated as fragile wimps. They would have to be a strongly functional part of the community. Maybe not quite as much brawn, but certainly as much brains as the men.

            This group of nomads rolls into a cluster of huts next to a ford across a stream. The kids who are not occupied with their chores, are in the outskirts of the cluster of huts, impromptu scouts on the lookout for strangers that rarely show up. This time they see something different about the vehicle the visitors are dragging behind them. A cow or a goat or camel is tied to the travois – this is normal. The whole troupe is tired and covered with dust. The animal dragging the wheeled vehicle heads straight for the water. All this is normal, but the person tending the travois is struggling to stop the travois. Usually when the animal stops, the travois stops. The animal-tender drags her feet to keep the travois’ momentum from pushing the animal into the water. Brakes would come later. The local kids can see that the travois seems to be pushing the goat on its own as it rolls down the slope to the river. Spooky, right?

            Some of the people would be frightened by this, others curious and some would see the advantages and rush out and buy one right away. The elders would complain that it wasn’t right that their stuff should be hauled in such an unreliable thing as a travois with a wheel. Pretty quickly, many of the younger ones would start adapting and inventing on their own until they couldn’t imagine dragging the forked sticks of a travois down the road. They would have made jokes about sticks-in-the-mud and told stories about runaway goats (or cows or camels) that left a trail of possessions a mile wide down a path in the mountains.

            Then someone would want to carry a shitload of stuff and the idea of a box with two wheels would arrive and it would be a wagon. Since thin, seasoned planking was difficult to make until 300AD when the Romans built a water powered sawmill, these wagons would be made of split wood and very heavy. Their owners would be proud of them and take care of them, possibly better than they took care of their children. They would paint eyes on the front so the wagon could find it’s way and wings on the side so it would be light like a bird. They would hang a few strands of straw at the tail end as a joke. Instead of leaving Grandma to die in the shade of a roadside tree, they could bundle her up and take her with them to the cluster of huts where there might be someone kind enough to take care of her until she passed away at the ripe old age of 35.

            But I keep thinking about a person seeing that wheeled vehicle for the first time. How magical it would be. And frightening. Just like seeing your sofa adjust itself to a better spot in front of the TV.