Re-Inventing the Wheel

If English is your primary language, you know that “reinventing the wheel” is a standard phrase for, well, spinning your wheels–recreating something that already exists, usually at the expense of unnecessary time and effort.* The phrase rests on several assumptions: That the wheel is one of the foundational discoveries on which civilization was built. That wheels, unlike mousetraps, cannot be substantially improved. That cultures that did not invent the wheel are inherently primitive. (To which I say: 1)Sometimes 2)Wrong and 3) Wrong!!)

If you spend any time thinking about the Sahara,** you begin to question the primacy of the wheel as an element of transportation.*** Because here’s the deal: wheeled vehicles don’t work everywhere. (There is a reason that camels and sled dogs provided a practical form of transportation well into the modern world. ) Wheeled vehicles depend on stable, relatively level ground (not sand, mud, or stuff that melts under friction) or at least a paved road. To give you an example, in Why the Wheel is Round, biomechanical expert Stephen Vogel calculates that a draft horse can pull a 4000 pound wagon load on level ground; on a road with a six degree grade, Vogel calculates that same horse can pull a 90 pound load. Until we changed from literal horse power to mechanical horse power, the wheel was not universally viable.

Rant over.

*As opposed to building a better mousetrap, which is recreating something that already exists in a new and exciting way. Which may take time and effort, but doesn’t waste them.
**I presume this is also true of those who of you who spend time thinking about the Arctic. Which I don’t much.
***As opposed to its use in making pottery, spinning yarn, grinding grain, drilling holes, etc.

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