Off the Rails: The Misunderstood History of the Wheel

By Kelly O’Brien – March 30, 2016

The Boston Globe

Railroad building was both a showcase for the might of the Industrial Revolution and a spur toward further invention. While crews blew holes through mountains with nitroglycerine, inventors worked on a better way to make steel for stronger, straighter rails. Why was all of this exploding and inventing necessary in the first place? The problem was primitive wheels.

Trains can make only the slightest turns because they run on “wheelsets,” in which wheels are fixed at either end of an axle and all three components rotate together. For a vehicle to handle tighter curves, its outer wheel must be able to rotate faster than its inner wheel or, better yet, pivot at a slightly different angle — neither of which a train’s wheelsets allow.

That’s why railroad tracks couldn’t be built along the course of windy, old roads. Straight, new pathways were blasted across the country.

Despite the current ubiquity of wheels and their frequent citation as humans’ greatest invention, they are not well understood as a technology or a historical force, argues historian Richard Bulliet in his new book “The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions.”

During the 5,000 years between the appearance of the first wheels and the rise of trains and automobiles, wheeled vehicles were slow to develop, limited in use, and contained to their specific geographic contexts.

Ideas spoke with Bulliet by phone from his home in New York City.

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