Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin

Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making.

The wheel was almost certainly invented in Mesopotamia—present-day Iraq. Estimates on when this may have occurred range from 5500 to 3000 B.C. The oldest wooden wheel discovered so far (in Slovenia, not in Mesopotamia) dates to about 3150 B.C., though for all anyone knows, wheels were already in use in various places for centuries by that point. But there is also evidence from the very same period of time that wheels were used for pottery.

Drinking and Driving

It was around 3000 B.C. that the first goblets appeared. Clay goblets are normally made by throwing them on a wheel in two parts—first the bowl, then the stem (including the foot). This makes for a far more smooth and regular shape than could be achieved by manual coiling, and since the oldest surviving goblets bear the telltale signs of wheel manufacture, it is plausible that wheels were used for pottery before they were used for transportation. For that matter, it’s conceivable—though admittedly a wild and improbable speculation—that the wheel was invented for the express purpose of making goblets. Be that as it may, it is virtually certain that historically, the preferred way to make goblets was to throw them.

If the wheel was indeed invented for the convenience of potters, the question then becomes how it came to be used for transportation; clearly, whichever use appeared first, the other quickly followed. To be honest—putting myself as best I can into the sandals of someone living many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia—I probably never would have thought to turn a pottery wheel on its edge and put it under a box (or vice-versa). But then, I’ve always had a knack for overlooking the obvious.

This story also has an interesting postscript. Some sources claim that prior to the invention of the pottery wheel, most pottery was primarily made by women, whereas afterward, it became a man’s job. Thus we can see that the stereotypical male trait of liking gadgets goes way back. I can just picture those prehistoric dudes standing around bragging about their new wheels and saying, “This is the greatest invention since fire!” —Joe Kissell

More Information

More on the invention of the wheel in general, the pottery wheel in particular, and other technological milestones:

If you’re throwing your own goblets and having trouble keeping the stem attached to the bowl, see this thread on clayart.