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On the planet Nova 3, there exists a species of intelligent, Macropodidae-like creatures called Novians. The species is mostly herbivorous, although meat is eaten on special occasion. Their planet is covered by many biomes, such as rolling plains, dense jungle, savannah, and tundra. The Novians evolved from bipedal horse-like creatures 175,000 years ago, and they have four stomachs. Most of what they eat is grass and roots. They used to be prey to creatures called Daystalkers, but those all went extinct long ago. Novian culture never developed the wheel, but they were able to advance to an era similar to humanity's space age.

My question is: could a modern society exist without the wheel?

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  • $\begingroup$ If you include a bit more detail about their anatomy I might be able to answer. How do they manipulate? Are they still bipedal, and if so, are they upright like humans or bent over like kangaroos? What kind of other technologies do they have? $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Apr 28 '18 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ @SealBoi: It’s more like kangaroo bipedalism. Also, there feet are shaped like horse hoves but there hands are like ours (except with only 4 fingers) $\endgroup$ – Talos 2 Apr 28 '18 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ I think that you have a very narrow definition of a "wheel". Please clarify what a "wheel" is, because at first sight you want to exclude pottery, lathes, mills, electric generators and motors, gears, and in general any post-stone-age technology. For a simple example, rocket engines use turbopumps. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 28 '18 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ The Martians in War of the Worlds had never developed the wheel too $\endgroup$ – Sasha Apr 28 '18 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ An oceanic race might not have a wheel. Even if the biomes would have include many small islands (archipelago), the wheel would be unnecessary as boats remain more viable. But rolling plains? Rolling plains? It's almost in the name. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Apr 28 '18 at 22:13

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I have a suggestion; since you only want this to differentiate them from wheel inventors, would it be OK if they come up with something very similar?

I suggest you credit them with the invention of the sphere.

This in turn leads to a discovery of a ball & socket mode of transport.

Conceptual image (from google search for ball caster)
Takigen ball caster <-- use inverted

This would be close enough to a wheel to not need much extra explanatory text to familiarise readers and need only as much in the way of additional artefacts required to use the non-wheel mode of transport as you want to drive the plot. For example if they're the right size they could just use the spheres on the same roads the wheel inventors use otherwise you could develop plot along the diplomacy required to hash out a common road specification that both transport modes could use.

Using @Separatrix' list of issues, the only items not immediately solved are the trains (set train tracks as grooves instead of rails) and rolling tree trunks which stumped me until I remembered your world has this species of tree whose roots have perfectly spherical nodes that roll to the fire far better than logs. ;-)

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    $\begingroup$ I really like this answer, especially the spherical nodes of the roots, it will be easier to "harvest" and find similarly sized spheres for optimal surface contact. This will also make turning easier, imagine making the 90 degree turns of the pyramids corners with a 10t stone on logs. $\endgroup$ – ChP Apr 29 '18 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ One problem I see, though, is with progress when it comes to powered transport. It's much easier to transfer power to a wheel via an axle and a chain or gears than it would be to transfer power to the spheres. You would need friction for that and with friction comes a lot of wear and tear. Vibration will also be an issue, irregularities on the spheres' surface will cause a lot of vibration, and making (near) perfect spheres is much harder than making (near) perfect cylinders. (And once you drill a hole through the sphere and put a stick through it, you've created a wheel) $\endgroup$ – ChP Apr 29 '18 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ I down voted simply because it's a practical impossibility to create a sphere without spotting the much simpler to engineer disc on the way. In all engineering you make the simplest device possible for a task. It makes no sense to waste resources on a sphere when a disc would do just as well. No culture that developed even rudimentary engineering would not spot this. Discs (and cylinders) allow axial rotation devices and gearing. The entire race would need to be idiots to not spot the utility of the disc while making spheres. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 30 '18 at 0:21
  • $\begingroup$ That looks cool, but I need to point that if you apply standard physics to it, it's pretty useless for general transportation. It lacks 2 main advantages of the wheels: (1) There is no diameter difference between the wheel and the axle, which is crucial for effectively reducing drag (when using wheels). (2) You can't protect the bearing from elements and dirt. Following from (1): you need great precision in manufacturing the ball to make your contraption more effective even than simple sleds. $\endgroup$ – Frax Apr 30 '18 at 7:59
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Yes, but no

They will have invented the wheel, many times in many places. But you're asking for them not to have used the wheel for transport. You're going to have to justify this, every step of the way.

Why did the farmers not develop a cart to take goods to market?

Why was the train not invented to travel large distances overland?

Why was the car never invented? The truck?

Why was the bicycle or motorbike never invented?

Why was something as simple as rolling a heavy log to the fire not valid?

All these machines would have been sitting in front of people dozens of times for tens of thousands of years to solve a problem they would have had. You have to justify why they weren't valid solutions or how the problem they would have solved never existed.

You can suggest that they're such efficient runners that personal transport was never required, but that doesn't hold true of goods, especially in an industrial revolution situation.

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    $\begingroup$ "All these machines would have been sitting in front of people dozens of times for tens of thousands of years" and would have been solved by the wheel only if there were large, domesticable available for these kangaroos to domesticate. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 30 '18 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn, the handcart comes before the horse-drawn cart. Though right now the image in my head is of a kangaroo on a unicycle for some reason. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Apr 30 '18 at 6:52
  • $\begingroup$ "the handcart comes before the horse-drawn cart." You'd think so, but the pre-Columbian Americans don't seem to have developed the wheel beyond the toy stage. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 30 '18 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn, but as you said yourself, they're neolithic, so not much help to us here. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Apr 30 '18 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ Pre-Columbians could have developed the hand-cart. That they didn't is very puzzling. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 30 '18 at 10:55
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In order to avoid having a wheel you need to have something that's just as good invented before it so whenever someone figures out the wheel and tells the rest of your creature by that "look at how this cool round shapes rolls around" they can just say "we don't need that... our Jabba-Jabbas do the same thing far better".

Now seeing how Worldbuilding doesn't have to be Sci-Fi (and me not seeing any way for it to happen in a hard Sci-Fi setting) I'm going to stick to soft Sci-Fi ways for it to be possible:

  • Magic - a simple magic allows things to levitate or move frictionless so no need to have the wheel
  • Anti-grav material - if an anti-grav material is abundant and easy to use then why not use that instead?
  • Telportation - if you can move from point A to point B why take the slow route?

Damn managed to figure out a hard Sci-Fi reason to them not having any wheels: - a weird one but what about having some religous objections to use a wheel as it was once used by Daystalkers and is therefor made by the devil? it will be slow and complex but there is no reason a spaceship can be build with zero wheels in the process.

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    $\begingroup$ "anti-grav material" reminds me of "The Road Not Taken" where it turns out that humans were the only race not to discover gravity manipulation, so we developed extremely advanced tech but remained trapped on our own plant, versus other races that gallivanted around the galaxy while fighting with gunpowder weapons. Such a race might ask "How could a space-age civilization exist without the discovery gravity manipulation??" $\endgroup$ – apsillers Apr 28 '18 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ @apsillers - As TVTropes says: "The reason is because the secret to anti-gravity is so illogical that the scientific method is essentially rendered useless and scientific progress is brought to a complete halt. Additionally once you have ... antigravity ..., you don't need many of the other technologies" $\endgroup$ – Malady Apr 29 '18 at 23:24
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(I won't even ask where bipedal horses came from, and why they devolved to quadrupedalism, nor where their intelligence came from, nor how they can manipulate fire, much less forge metal or even have such a surplus of stored food that some horses could dedicate themselves to academic pursuits.)

No.

The wheel and axle are too fundamental to just about every area of technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ They are Bipedal, and I meant wheels for transportation. $\endgroup$ – Talos 2 Apr 28 '18 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Talos2 you need to take SealBoi and John's comments the wheel being too useful of an idea. There's no way you can go beyond the Stone Age without the wheel. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 28 '18 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ What about the Incas $\endgroup$ – Talos 2 Apr 28 '18 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Talos2 what did the Incas build with? Stone. What did the Incas fight with? Spears, slings, clubs, bows/arrows, and a little copper. Highly advanced neolithic, but still neolithic. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 28 '18 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Handwave it away. Ignore the problem, and if your story is good enough, the reader will ignore it too. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 28 '18 at 15:24
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So, to not have wheels, you kinda need a reason not to have wheels, and something that'll do the job within those circumstances.

For me, what jumps to mind immediately is terrain. Steep hills, deep snow, quicksand and swamps. Many of our state-of-the-art cars can't negotiate this kind of terrain, so neither could primitive carts.

To find an alternative, we must once again look to the real world. So, what method of vehicle locomotion outcompetes wheels in extreme terrain?

Treads, of course. These are more advanced than wheels, so would take considerably longer to invent than the wheel. Basically, imagine a loop of wood (or alien equivalent) planks, tied together with strong cordage, with rotating discs (Does that count as cheating?), pulled by a domesticated beast.

This would have a few implications for your species, however. Since treads are less maneuverable than wheels, their military doctrine would be different to ours (More guns and armour, less speed and maneuverability.) Transport would also be less comfortable, so driving might not be seen as something enjoyable (Except, perhaps, for the wilder individuals.) as much as it is on Earth.

Hope I answered your question well, good luck with your species!

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    $\begingroup$ But you still need wheels to rotate the treads, so yes, I think it does $\endgroup$ – nzaman Apr 28 '18 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @nzaman Yes, I think the main thing that the OP wants is their technology to seem different to ours, rather than word-for-word "no wheels invented". $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Apr 28 '18 at 16:39
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The "easy" transportation when wheels are unfeasible is water, as others have suggested. And you don't need an oceanic landscape to make it viable. The Indigenous people of North America had no wheels because of the lakes and rivers.

Some might feel comfortable arguing that the lack of wheels is directly responsible for the relatively primitive technology these cultures had. Personally, I don't see this as an insurmountable problem for someone with some imagination.

Since you've said the main reason you chose the feature was to create a difference between this species and humanity, I think it's worth saying that you should either develop the idea or choose something you feel you can commit to and develop. I don't think it makes sense to choose a detail for the interestingness it might add, and then hand-wave it into a summary instead of exploring it.

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    $\begingroup$ Amazed that it took scrolling past so many answers proposing bogs, jelly etc to strike one that recognised water as a transport medium! Living in the Pacific, this seems obvious. "Imagine an ever present slippery surface one could use to transport objects" ... $\endgroup$ – Chris Burgess Apr 29 '18 at 23:34
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Not a terrestrial one no, a wheel is the basics for axles, gears, sprockets, a massive number of manufacturing techniques are based on it. It is just too simple basic and essential a tool. It is like asking for a such a civilization without the lever.

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  • $\begingroup$ I meant wheels for transportation. They have axels and gears, they just don’t use awgeeks for moving things around. $\endgroup$ – Talos 2 Apr 28 '18 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the chances are that if they have wheels for pottery or something, they'll eventually figure out that they're great for transport - unless they find a better way first. $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Apr 28 '18 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ Wheels are just too useful , even something as simple a wheelbarrow or cart offers a huge advantage, then you get into vehicles and moving heavy equipment. on land there is no way around wheels. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 28 '18 at 14:54
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I could see a sentient species not using the wheel for transportation, but these would be avian or arboreal types of creatures that seldom if ever go on the ground. An environment that makes wheels very impractical, like SealBoi suggested is another reason.

But considering the environment and body shape of your aliens, it's very unrealistic. All it would take is one of these aliens on the rolling plains to realize that wheels can help them move things faster and more easily than before, and from there it would quickly spread.

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You can make wheels mostly useless, but it's not necessarily enough

I guess it's possible to make wheels pretty useless for many uses e.g. by making your planet surface covered by just bogs and deserts, where wheels sink, but boats and other floating devices are much more useful.

I see at least one caveat, though: mines. It doesn't seem viable for advanced civilization to exist without mining, but for mining you need at least some dry space to start digging, and in effect you get the mines themselves, where wheels seems much superior to any alternative. Even if you give your folk gills to breathe underwater and submerge the mines, wheels seem too useful to not use them.

Also, I'd expect cable car to be invented at some point, and they use wheels.

Maybe if you make super-slippery materials available

Having no-drag sleighs may render carts unnecessary and complicated. Two caveats:

  1. This may be actually a big dent in law of physics to produce such materials easily. But I'm not even sure, and perhaps no one will notice.
  2. Wheels have nice property of moving just in one direction. Super-slippery sleighs don't have it, they can go any direction and you have to actually anchor them. Also, they need some propulsion, and for propulsion you usually want traction. So using your super material to create superior bearing for wheels may happen to be an annoyingly good solution.
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Yes, if they live on a jelly.

If the whole surface of their home planet is a sort of elasic goo, or jelly, or a quicksand, then they would have no need for a wheel, and a wheel won't work. They would not need a wheel in industrial machines if they have access to some super-slippery material, some form of ideal ice, that they could use for bearings and carts.

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You can prevent wheels in several different ways (mainly variations on terrain), you can't prevent them from inventing the gear.

They are going to have to invent round things and those round things will have to be used to control and distribute power.

Even super powers and magic aren't really going to make tha go away.

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@mcalex

The ball caster has very little ground clearance relative to its size. This is unavoidable since the cup must envelop over half the ball or it'll fall out.

Since the interface between the ball and cup is the same surface that it runs on (as opposed to a normal wheel, where the rim is quite separate from the axle) it'll fill up with crud very soon if used on anything other than a clean surface.

And it's one thing when it's being pulled. How would you develop a powered version of it?

Lastly, sooner or later someone will be maintaining one (i.e. cleaning the crud out of it due to point 2 above) or playing with a toy one and start twirling the ball between his fingers and realize that he could drill a hole through it and mount it on a rod, and then he could make it smaller and lighter and get lower ground pressure by making it cylindrical...

Apart from that they're a brilliant idea!

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a comment about an existing answer, not an answer itself. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Apr 29 '18 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn It's a bit than more than, this is a corollary to an existing answer. This means it's more than a comment. Tricky! $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 30 '18 at 1:26
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Due to the fact we are human we find it difficult to divorce ourselves from our humanness to think like an alternate species. If a species had kangaroo-like limbs and a horse-like head living within a world that abounds with plant type food with not much need to cover vast distances and lift heavy things, I can imagine them to totally bypass the industrial age. If the environment was filled with items containing strong magnetic properties I could imagine the creation of anti-gravity devices to leapfrog the age of the wheel. I look to some of our fellow species for evidence of capabilities which humans still struggle to understand. Take for instance the advanced navigation capabilities in birds, the ability of a chameleon to rapidly change its skin color etc. I would imagine a bird-like species to entirely bypass the age of the wheel easily. The progress of human evolution has been aided but also hindered by the pathways we have chosen as a species. What we have created as a species could lead to our rapid extinction so you could argue the pathways we chose are not the smartest and best for us for long-term survival. It could be argued that the positive contribution made by humans to the Earth biosphere is zero-sum game or worse. Given that humans have risen to the "perceived" top of the evolutionary race, we now control and limit the advancement of most other species, however, germ and bacteria development seems to be giving us fair competition. If it were not for us ... what would it be? ;-)

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, ThoughtSeed, I don't want to seem like Captain Grumpy, you made a good attempt to answer the question. However, it has tended to be too discussive & conjectural to properly answer the question itself. This is a Q&A site. Answers need to be based on reasons, facts & information focused on the topic of the question. Your answer can be improved by deleting the text after "the age of the wheel." When it becomes purely opinion. It takes time to learn this site. Hang in there. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 30 '18 at 6:36
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Captain... will take your constructive comments on board. $\endgroup$ – ThoughtSeed Apr 30 '18 at 22:52

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