Wheel and axle – Simple machines – Physics

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An Egyptian potter uses a pottery wheel, about 2000 BC

An Egyptian potter uses a pottery wheel, about 2000 BC. He uses his hand to spin the wheel.

Wheels do not exist in nature, and no animals use them except people (though some animals do use gears, which are a special kind of wheel). People didn’t use wheels either until the early Bronze Age, around 3500 BC, much later than the other simple machines (the lever and the inclined plane).

Who invented the wheel?

The earliest evidence for people using wheels comes from Sumeria (modern Iraq), about 4000 BC, just about the time when people first began to live in cities. The earliest wheels were probably not wagon wheels, but pottery wheels. Soon after that, though, maybe around 3700 BC, people in Central Asia were making wagon wheels. Spokes developed later than solid wheels.

(More about Central Asian inventions)

drawing of a mended pot, very irregular, with a drrawing of a cart with wheels scratched into it.

A clay pot with a drawing of a wheeled cart from what is now Poland, about 3500 BC

Wheel and axle

Wheels help people do work in two ways. First, like levers or inclined planes, wheels allow you to do something easy for a longer time, instead of doing something hard for a shorter time.

(More about levers)

If you turn a large wheel fixed to an axle, the axle will also turn. You can turn the large wheel easily (but it takes a lot of turning to go all the way around). The axle will go around a much shorter distance, but with more force.

In fact, a wheel is a kind of first-class lever. The center of the axle is the fulcrum of the lever. The outer edge of the axle is the weight of the lever. And the outer edge of the wheel is the force pushing the lever (Often, that’s the friction with the ground. On a potter’s wheel, that’s the hand of the potter pushing the wheel.)

Wheeled wagon carrying prisoners of war(Nineveh, Iraq, 700 BC)

Wheeled wagon carrying prisoners of war(Nineveh, Iraq, 700 BC)

(More about first-class levers)

Mechanical advantage

So you can use a wheel to create a mechanical advantage – you can turn something heavy, by spinning a large wheel attached to an axle that is attached to the heavy thing. That’s how a pencil sharpener works.

Or, you can do it the other way around – use a lot of force to turn the axle, and that will spin the wheels really fast. That’s what cars do, and spinning wheels.

(More about spinning wheels)

A wooden spinning wheel

A wooden spinning wheel

You get more mechanical advantage with bigger wheels and thinner axles. The mechanical advantage of a wheel and axle is the ratio of the radius of the wheel to the radius of the axle. But bigger wheels and thinner axles are also more likely to break, so you have to find the best proportion for your specific use.

When bicycles were first invented, bicycle manufacturers had to figure out the best proportions for the wheels. Some early bicycles had one enormous wheel and one tiny wheel. Others had both wheels the same size, the way ours do today.

(More about bicycles)

A pencil sharpener with a hand crank

How is this a wheel?

Wheels reduce friction

Also, wheels on a wagon only touch the ground at one spot at a time, keeping the rest of the wagon off the ground. This makes less friction, so that the wagon is easier to move than if you were pulling it along like a sled.

Wheels are the most important part of pottery wheelswagons and cars, but also of wheelbarrowsspinning wheels, water wheels, windmills, and pulleys.

Model of Indian cotton gin made of wood with hand cranked rollers

A machine that uses gears: a model of an Indian cotton gin (1100s AD)

Gears – a special kind of wheel

A gear is a special kind of wheel with teeth that fit into the teeth of another wheel. So a gear is also a kind of lever, because wheels are a kind of lever. Some kinds of grasshoppers have evolved to have legs with gears in the joints to jump with.

Whoever invented gears, the idea spread quickly: Indians were using gears for waterwheels by the 300s BC. Greeks knew about gears by the time of Aristotle, about the same time, and people were also using gears in China. By the early Middle Ages, people all across Afro-Eurasia were using gears to run watermills and windmills.

Learn by doing – build a windmill to generate electricity

Bibliography and further reading about simple machines:


Inclined Plane
Quatr.us home

By |2018-09-10T13:51:45+00:00August 17th, 2017|Central Asia, Physics|7 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Wheel and axle – Simple machines – Physics. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 17, 2017. Web. December 18, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. ffffff February 5, 2018 at 10:14 am - Reply


  2. Jerrel January 27, 2018 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    Preferably more examples

    • Karen Carr January 28, 2018 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll work on that.

  3. melanie January 11, 2018 at 10:14 am - Reply

    very helpful thank you karen

    • Karen Carr January 11, 2018 at 11:27 am

      Wonderful! I’m glad I could help.

  4. john November 12, 2017 at 6:53 am - Reply

    so lame

    • Karen Carr November 20, 2017 at 4:22 pm

      Sorry we couldn’t help you. What were you trying to find out?

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