Friday, Feb 03, 2023

It’s just wheel power

When our son was very young his favourite pastime was to name the different kinds of cars that he saw on the road. At that time, I used to w...

When our son was very young his favourite pastime was to name the different kinds of cars that he saw on the road. At that time, I used to wonder if it had anything to do with his upbringing, that maybe we were subconsciously encouraging his fascination with cars. But on a little reflection I realised that it had very little to do with conditioning.

Yes, he had the opportunity to get to know the names of cars. But I think there is an instinct for wheeled objects at work. Go to a slum cluster and you will see children wheeling old cycle tires with sticks. The exquisite terracotta toy in the shape of the bullock cart that has been found in Mohenjo Daro testifies to the antiquity of this fascination.

There has to be something about the motion of a wheel, which transcends conditioning and class barriers. The exact form this fascination takes is dependent, of course, upon availability or conditioning or advertising — but it goes deeper. The use of the wheel for transport must surely count as one of humankind’s most important discoveries. Not only in transportation but in the making of pottery. The potter’s wheel probably predates the wheel of the cart. The use of the wheel for transportation is known as far back as 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. In its simplest form, a wheel is a circular disk that revolves around a central axis. The wheel was possibly the second of the simple machines used by Homo sapiens, the first possibly being the lever. Once the wheel was in use, countless innovations made it more efficient. The spoked wheel, the axle, ball bearings, pneumatic tyres, tubeless tyres and so on. Along with the innovations came its myriad uses: the potter’s wheel, the grinding wheel for cereal and oil, the Persian wheel for irrigation.

The impact of this simple innovation cannot be overestimated. Once the yoke was designed for use with draught animals, human mobility increased several fold. This undoubtedly had an impact on early urbanisation that could only sustain itself on the basis of the agricultural surplus produced in the hinterland and transported to the markets. And the enormous effect of using a potter’s wheel to create lasting artifacts can be seen even today.

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What has all of this got to do with the fascination of children with wheels? Since the wheel has only been around for about 5,000 years, the trait cannot possibly be hardwired evolutionarily. At the same time, its prevalence across cultures and class boundaries leads one to suspect that there is something inherent in our biology, which leads to this. This is possibly heretical for biologists but I think that we need to think about it.

Primo Levi once wrote that there are only seven different kinds of games played by children across the world. Variations on these seven themes — from catch, hopscotch, hide and seek and so on — are seen around the world. Maybe one should add the “driving” of wheels whether old cycle tyres or the latest Buatti miniatures. The question then is to understand why this is the case.

First published on: 20-02-2004 at 00:00 IST
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