Invention of wheel, sewing needles, and color pigments

Fareeha Arshad
The wheel is one of the earliest inventions in human historyJon Cartagena/Unsplash

Can you imagine a day without a wheel? I am not talking about just using it; I am also pointing to the number of times you see a wheel in a day. It could be in front of you while you absent-mindedly walk past by your flat or every time you peep outside your window. The wheel is one of the most significant human discoveries ever — without which life wouldn't be the same. From the time it was first invented until today, and even a thousand years into the future, it will always be relevant and an integral part of human lives.

Not just wheels — the everyday objects like mints, alarm clocks, door locks, paper, needles, paints — are all a part of ancient discoveries. Let’s dig into some of these ancient inventions that are still an integral part of our daily lives.

1. The Wheel: in use since 4500 BC

The puzzle of when and where the wheel was exactly invented remains unsolved. However, most researchers attribute the first wheel to the Mesopotamian civilization (present-day Iraq) during the late Neolithic period or the beginning of the Copper Age. The wheel was first used as a potter’s wheel.

Only three centuries after that did people realize that wheels could also be used for transportation purposes. Wheels were first used in wheelbarrows in ancient Greece during the sixth century BC. The earliest caricature of a wheeled vehicle was found on a Bronocice pot from 4500 BC. The wheels reached central Europe through the Indus Valley civilization in the Indian subcontinent during 4000 BC.
The Bronocice pot that holds some of the earliest drawings of wheelsWikimedia Commons

The old wheels were quite simple in their structure — having a wooden exterior with a small hole that held the axle. Spoked wheels, similar to the ones we see today, are a very new invention. The Sintashta culture was possibly the earliest people to invent such wheels. The other neighboring regions then adopted these wheels. Spoked wheel chariots pulled by horses then became a common means of transport.

However, since both the horses and chariots were quite expensive, only the rich could afford to travel in such carriages. During the first millennium BC, iron-rimmed spoked wheels came into the picture. These were much stronger and were popular in the Greek and Roman regions. Such spoked wheels were used for a long time until the mid-1800s. During the 1870s, wire-spoked wheels and pneumatic tires like the ones we have now were produced. Such wheels showed much less resistance on the road and increased the efficiency of travel. Now, the wheels that we use are cast alloy wheels that can bear a large amount of weight.

2. Sewing needles: having your back for more than 60,000 years
Flat bone sewing needles from the Magdalenian Upper Paleolithic EraWikimedia Commons

The needles that we use today are a culmination of years of evolution. The present-day needles are made of steel or copper, coated with gold or silver that prevents corrosion. The first needle unearthed dates back to 60,000 years ago, having been discovered in South Africa. Other such needles have been found in China, Russia, and other areas that go back 45,000 years ago. The first needle with an eye is as much as 25,000 years old.

These early sewing needles could have emerged from the need to sew clothes that fit better. This could especially have come out of the need to protect the early humans from chilling winter air that would pass through the holes and spaces between the layers of animal skin and fur they wrapped themselves with. Prototypes of the sewing needles as we see today emerged in the second millennium BC, especially during the Bronze Age. Owing to the highly pliable nature of gold, needles were also made of expensive elements.

The needles used for embroidery came long after. The earliest instance of embroidery emerged in Central or South Asia or the Middle East, 30,000 years ago. Some ancient texts from ancient China dated 220 BC describe embroidery as ‘making decorations using needle’.

3. Color pigments: have been used in more ways than we can count in 400,000 years
An old Egyptian tomb wall-paintingBritish Library/Unsplash

We, humans, are naturally drawn to colors. Living without the different shades of life is unimaginable. Maybe that’s why color pigments for decorative purposes have been used since prehistoric times. Natural elements like clay from the earth’s surface, colorants like ochres, sienna, cobalt, among many others, were popular across many cultures.

The Egyptian and Chinese civilizations were the forerunners in producing color pigments. During 1300 BC, the Egyptians discovered that they could fix the color dyes with a white base, like protein elements of eggshells, that would later give pigments like madder lake and carmine lake. Additionally, mixing pigments like this gave stronger colors that would strongly bind to their substrates and wouldn’t easily wash off. Apart from deep blue shades derived from azurite, these maroon pigments are often found in old Egyptian paintings and architecture.

Pieces of equipment used for deriving and grinding pigments have been discovered in Zambia that age over 400,000 years. By the 1400s, walnut and linseed oil replaced eggshells and pigment binding agents, thereby giving better quality paints. Until the recent Industrial Revolution, the colors available and used in production were very limited — most of these were derived from naturally available elements like the various plant and animal species.

By the 1800s, paint tubes were readily made available, which allowed easy mixing of paint colors and made them more portable. By the end of this century, synthetic dyes replaced naturally derived pigments — delivering a broader range of shades and colors.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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