The Wheel: Inventions & Reinventions
By Richard W. Bulliet
2016, Columbia UP, 978-0-23117-338-4, $27.95 hb.
Reviewed by Graham Chandler on March 15, 2017
Ask anyone to name humankind’s greatest invention and most respondents will say the wheel—it transformed society forever. In this well-illustrated volume, Richard Bulliet cogently argues that wheels really weren’t all that revolutionary: Unlike the horse or the elephant, they needed even terrain to work well, they broke down and they required motive power. And he challenges the generally accepted belief that wheels evolved from simple rollers in Mesopotamia some 5,500 years ago. He proposes they were born in the mines of the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe half a millennium before that. He presents and explains little-known facts that will intrigue technology buffs, and doesn’t forget the psychological aspects of wheel culture, addressing, for instance, European (male) aristocracy’s initially derisive attitudes toward riding in carriages. Significantly, he directly tackles the theories of prominent scholars like Stuart Piggott and Jared Diamond on the origins and early applications of wheel technology, which will surely stimulate lay readers’ thinking and spark debate among academics.