Wheels did not exist before 4000 BCE But within a few hundred years pictures of wheels were turning up on pottery and whole wagons were turning up in graves. As I mentioned in a previous post, wheels are not the only invention necessary for a wagon. Axles and axle arms are important for smooth turning of the wheels. Since, at this time, all the wagon pieces would be carved from wood, everything had to fit perfectly. Too loose and the wheels wobbled, too tight and the wheels struggled to turn. Drag, (remember I mentioned drag?) meant that these early wagons were narrow. Some of the wagons found in these old old graves are only three feet wide.
Wagons had to have something that connected to the draft animal: called harness pole, traces etc. Yes, by the time that wheels and then wagons were invented, horses had already been domesticated. But more about that later.
Later on, say 5000 years later, most of these inventions had been fine tuned. Wagons, such as the one my character Rees would drive, would be wide, fairly heavy, but constructed in such a way it rode smoothly over the crummy roads of the time. The front wheels would be smaller than the back ones, to turn easily, and also slightly cupped. The axle, although still made of wood, had other pieces attached, and by now most were made of iron. The wheels had spokes and iron rims. Sounds relatively simple, doesn’t it? Well, not so much. Even without brakes, there are a number of other parts, with names like bolster stake and flange and hound braces. (Really.)
Before 1860, most wagons were hand built by blacksmiths, wheelwrights and carpenters, probably all three.
Wheels are arguably one of the most important, if not the most important, inventions in human history. Although humans have always wandered, wheeled vehicles made us really mobile, and mobile as communities. Some of the early settlers on the steppes moved from place to place as a lifestyle. For those who settled, wagons enabled the farmers to carry manure to the fields and produce back home. In American history, the wagon is an icon. Think of the Conestoga – canvas covering over a wagon body.
But to be truly efficient, a wheeled vehicle has to have an animal to pull it. The Incas had wheels – which they used on toys – but they had no access to draft animals. The llama is not built properly to pull wagons. (And that’s not even mentioning the topography of the Incan Empire – high mountains, deep valleys and lots of up and down in -between)
Oxen are certainly one choice, in fact they were the first choice, as draft animals but they are not fast. The onager, which is a member of the horse family but more closely resembles an ass, is another. Although fast, they are small. Same goes for mules.
Onto the mighty horse.
For more information on wagon construction, check out the website on Farm Collections.