Despite what we were taught as we read Johnny Hart’s B.C. cartoon strips in our daily newspapers, a cavemen named Thor did not invent the wheel. Nor did the Egyptians, Chinese or Mesopotamians, writes Tom Standage in A Brief History of Motion.
So who invented the wheel? Citing carbon-dating evidence, it appears the wheel was developed as early as 3,950 B.C. by people living in the Carpathian Mountains of what is now Ukraine.
However, it was the Romans who devised a way to steer such contraptions and that technology was the further developed in the Hungarian village of Kocs, pronounced “coach,” which popularized such devices as a useful and common method of transportation.
In the early days, coaches were pulled along by animals, but things accelerated with the emergence of engines fueled by steam or petroleum or through the employment of electric batteries and motors.
Among the many fascinating tales emerging from Standagh’s research are those that explain how gasoline rather than ethanol alcohol became the fuel of choice of internal-combustion engines, and how a scandal involving operators of electric-powered taxi cabs all but pulled the plug on electric vehicles.
Standage is deputy editor of the Economist and author of previous historical examinations, including A History of the World in 6 Glasses and An Edible History of Humanity.
In Motion, he also writes about how the hamburger replaced the hot dog as the favored form of fast food for American motorists, and of the impact of the automobile on American culture, and its cities and suburbs.
But, he also writes, “cars are no longer associated with freedom” in the way they were for previous generations, that role shifting to the smart phone, and accelerating as we learned during the pandemic that we not only could shop by phone but that many of us work from home instead of commuting to an office.
Standage looks not only through the rear-view mirror but the road ahead through the windshield, to ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles and to what he calls “the internet of motion.”
A Brief History of Motion
By Tom Standage
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021
Hardcover, 246 pages