# Would it be possible for a civilization to create machines before wheels?

I know wheels have been a pivotal part of every invention and machinery for hunmankind. But currently I'm making an alien civilization with access to floating rocks due to superconductivity. Thanks to floating rocks they manage to skip the wheels period in their civilization. Some of their sophisticated machinery uses joints and sockets.

• When I was in middle school, in the 5th form, first year of Physics, we had an entire module of two months or so about simple machines: the lever (no wheels, yay!), the inclined plane (no wheels, yay!), the wedge (no wheels, yay!), the screw (no wheels, yay!), the pulley (needs a wheel, boo!) and the wheel and axle (does not necessarily need a wheel). I am certain that the lever at least was discovered and used before the wheel. Of course, with no wheels they can't make gears and any kind of machinery which needs gears, e.g., a windmill. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 5:40
• define "machine" without rotating parts.
– John
Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 8:42
• I think the main confusion here arises from the dual meaning of "wheel". Are we talking about a rotating device with circular symmetry or the much smaller subset of these that is used as a force transfer mechanism between a moving object and the ground? The answer will be very different for the two. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 10:03
• "the wheel and axle (does not necessarily need a wheel)." Huh? How can a "wheel and axle" not need a wheel? Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 19:40
• @RonJohn - I think the OP means that because their magical rocks superconduct, they can be used for quantum levitation/flux locking. That does not require externally generated electricity, it just needs a reasonably strong magnetic field to induce a current in the superconductor. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 21:17

Yes... but really, no

A "machine" is specifically a compound object that performs more than a simple task. A hammer is not a "machine" (the hand tool, this will make sense in a moment). While it's theoretically possible that "a" machine could be created that doesn't use the basic principal of a wheel, the truth is that I can't think of one.

Consider, for example, medieval industrial mills. A single mill may have one or more of a trip hammer, saw, milling stone, etc. All of these things were driven by a water wheel....

Of course, that same idea is required for rolling pins (making bread), was used for an early newspaper (a very clever way of shipping many copies of an object in an era when printed paper was iffy), and rings for your fingers.

The truth is, the concept of a wheel (aka, a circle or cylinder), while likely discovered before all of the things I've mentioned, is actually at the core of a lot of basic tools, utensils, and jewelry.

Now, you haven't explained much in the way of details about your floating rocks, but based on what you have said, they're good for one thing: levitating something. You can't use them to power (e.g.) your medieval industrial mill. In fact, you can't use them to replace pulleys or to build something that's otherwise linear (like a trebuchet) because even these need something to rotate around.

Maybe... maybe... you could invent a catapult before you invent the concept of a circular cylindrical thingie (although even those need a rotation point). Maybe a crossbow or ballistia... (dang... both need a trigger, which means a nail, which means a circle or cylinder thingie), but it's far more likely that the idea will come up much, much earlier than that.

In other words...

Your people will invent cartage before they invent the wheel. But not much else. The tack for the critters pulling the carts floating on the rocks will likely need wheelish objects. Like bits for their mouths. It's a lot more difficult than it sounds to avoid the creation of the wheel when you need so many things in the shape of a cylinder anyway (and a wheel is just a thin cylinder).

HOWEVER

Does any of what I just said matter?

Go forth, write your uber-cool story, and don't worry about whether or not your aliens could invent a machine before inventing the wheel. On Earth, it's difficult to believe... but that's just us and it's really hard to look at our history and see another way it could have happened (and believe you me, we've tried on this site).

My point is, your aliens are what you want them to be. Flip us all the proverbial vulgar hand gesture and make it so! Your aliens are not obligated to Earth's history. On your world, those first horse bits were made out of rectangles of wood or metal.

• I agree overall, but I think you go too far with what you characterize as a wheel. A wheel is generally defined to have an axle; a rolling disc or cylinder is not necessarily a wheel. A ring or a bit for a horse's mouth are certainly not wheels, and I'd argue even a solid rolling pin isn't either. Wheels rely on the observation that the center of a spinning disc does not move relative to the disc, while other types of round or spinning non-wheels do not. I don't see the OP's criteria being failed the moment the society builds any round-ish objects. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 12:41
• I like the post, but a nail does not need to be circle. I have some (quite old) nails which are square. Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 6:16
• The traditional taxonomy of simple machines includes the wheel and axle — but it distinguishes those components as two separate concepts. Most of your examples here seem a form of the axle, not the wheel — and it feels there’s enough conceptual leap between the two that a civilisation could have the axle for a while without finding the wheel. Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 9:22
• I think most of the commenters are looking at the purpose of something and assuming that said purpose is so unique that the same basic shape used elsewhere wouldn't eventually lead to it. That's very human-centric. The first time somebody used a bunch of logs to move heavy rocks the only thing stopping the invention of the wheel is a bright cookie who thinks, "you know, if I cut a half a foot off that log and carve a hole out of the center...." Innovation is organic and never relegated to a simple purpose, it's almost always someone seeing something common in a new way.
– JBH
Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 23:59

# Do not use the wheel

### Frame challenge

We have some large American cultures in ancient times not use wheels at all. They did have them on toys, so they were definitely known. This opens up the possibility to a culture that knows about wheels, but for whatever reason does not use it. Some none exclusive reasons why it can be so:

• The full use of wheels might not be realised.
• They value the labour without wheeled contraptions higher.
• Wheels used to be a liability in their culture because of terrain. When it was ingrained in their culture they simply did not start using it at a later time when it would be valuable.
• It goes against their religion.
• Slave labour was seen as better.
• They soon have an alternative for wheels, like floating rocks over superconductivity.

Yes, because that's what has happened historically.

A machine is "a physical system using power to apply forces and control movement to perform an action". This includes the six so-called simple machines: a lever, a wheel and axle, a pulley, an inclined plane, a wedge, and a screw. The pre-contact American civilisations didn't even know all of these (they were missing the wheel and axle, obviously due to missing the wheel), which didn't stop them from being, well, civilisations.

And strictly speaking, you don't even need civilisation as such to create some machines. A wedge for example (in the form of an axe) predates not only all civilisations, but also anatomically modern humans.

• They actually did know about the wheel and axle because archeologists found toys on wheels. What they lacked was metallurgy to make a plain bearing in order to put something heavy on the axles Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 19:20
• @ain92: Nobody had metal bearings until the High Middle Ages. The classical civilization surely didn't, and that didn't stop them from using carts and chariots. Wood + some sort of petroleum-based or tar-based lubricant works just fine. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 21:40
• @ain92: No, for real, in the Antiquity and most of the Middle Ages carts and chariots did not have any metal parts. A wooden wheel hub rotating on a wooden axle works just fine with some primitive lubrication. In fact, even in 1751, which is decidedly Early Modern, the Encyclopédie still says that wheel hubs are made of elm wood, and knows nothing of any metal bearing. The first metal parts for carts and wagons were not the bearings, but the tyres, introduced in the High Middle Ages. Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 0:13
• @AlexP - That's a simplistic view of technology. Until globalization, human technological development followed a rough progression, not a rigid ordering of steps. As the comment that you are replying to correctly said, there are many exemplars of small wheeled toys from Mesoamerican cultures. Some cultures also had bronze, such as the bronze axe-monies. Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 22:46
• @AlexP Metal tires were invented by the ancient Celts somewhere between 800-450BC. Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 15:07

# Yes, but you'll need to skip some steps

Simple machines are one thing, but to get advanced civilization you have to get creative with energy transfer.

The ability to float doesn't entirely replace the need for a wheel-like contraption, because you need a source of propulsion as well. Historically, our technology has relied extensively on axle-and-wheel setups to transfer energy from one place (for example, a donkey or a nuclear reactor) to another place (for example, a millstone or an electromagnetic turbine).

But we can envision modern technology that does not require the use of wheels at all. For example, while almost every kind of internal combustion engine turns either a wheel (in the case of cars) or a turbine (in the case of jets), solid-state rockets are basically a giant fire pointed in one direction. Similarly, sailing does not require any kind of wheel (although large ships with rigging under high tension may need pulleys).

Similarly, while early storage media such as data tapes, CDs, or hard drives require a spinning component, modern computers don't rely on spinning - not even on fans for cooling.

As long as you don't have to justify how they got to a certain point, you can envision a machine equivalent of pretty much anything that doesn't use wheels. To make their tech feel different (rather than just asking the reader to take your word for it), you can emphasize that while our wheel-based technology leverages continuous rotational motion to transfer energy, their tech prefers abrupt, linear motion (such as short-firing rockets, gunpowder projectiles, mass drivers, tension stored in bendable or stretchable materials, etc).

• +1 for "for example, a donkey or a nuclear reactor", which is a phrase that may never have occurred anywhere else. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 21:12
• In terms of mechanical physics, a donkey and a nuclear reactor are almost entirely interchangeable! Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 22:38
• I heard that Germany was phasing out donkeys. Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 21:35

Aim for exotic. If your aliens think in an alien manner, it would be logical that their machinery is alien to humans.

One thing that might help is that a side-effect of floating rocks makes the ground mountainous and muddy. Wheels are overrated as a means of transport because people do not consider how much good roads are necessary. Many cultures with the wheel would pack the stuff on mule back even though mules can pull a lot more than they can carry with good roads.

There is a belief that [mesoamerican civilisations did not use the wheel]. I find it hard to believe that the people who built Tenochtitlan and moved stones that weighed over 10 tons did not use wheels. It seems reasonable that the people who retreated to the cloud cities after the Spanish invasion may have had less use for the wheel. They may not have had draught animals. They used rope bridges to cross chasms. They used runners to take messages. If you lived in Machu Picchu, you wouldn't want a bicycle. I would be surprised if they did not have a wheelbarrow somewhere, but it may not have been interesting enough to put into a picture for posterity.

FWIW, whether they had wheels or not, they are an example of a civilisation that left no evidence for using the wheel.

People who live in permanent snow and ice do not use the wheel either. It is easier to make a sled. So, that's two.

I don't know what you expect of the people in your story. If they have a better alternative to a wheel, then they might use that. But I doubt if they would be amazed at a wheel if they saw one.

• AFAIK Mesoamerican civilisations absolutely did use wheels on their toys, so the concept must have been fairly well-known. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 10:07
• (1) The Inca Empire is hardly Mesoamerican. (2) The Mesoamerican civilizations left very very many pictures, on stone or on paper (yes, they had paper). It is hard to believe that they had a practical use for wheeled vehicles and not a single one of them made it to even one picture. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 12:44

# Yes, they build automatons

Consider this: a human has no wheels or wheel-like things inside its body. However, with some simple tools and a lot of effort we can make all sorts of things. So what if they made synthetic muscles, hearts, veins, nerves, and so on, and then built a humanoid machine out of that? That machine would have no wheels (it works just like humans), and it could do lots of different things (like humans). Of course, it doesn't immediately have to be as sophisticated as a humanoid robot, there will already be practical applications for just a synthetic muscle that can be made to contract and expand repeatedly, but it's to show what is possible.

Development of this would also take a very long time, just like it took a long time to go from the wheel itself to the car for example. And you would not have the benefit of a wheel in the intermediate stages, which is not only helpful for transportation, but has lots of practical uses.

For this to work, the floating rocks must be so useful that you can bypass the whole wheel stage. Maybe the strength of flotation can be precisely controlled, so it can be used to move things (not only vertically), mill, saw and so on?

## Depends on the machinery

For example computers might be able to be developed without wheels and directly jumping to albeit larger transistors. However physical/mechanical machinery could be difficult. The (gear)wheel has the neat property of being able to take, store and transfer kinetic energy without having to move from its position (relative to the machinery).

I think at a certain point they would develop the wheel, especially the gearwheel, because it solves a lot of problems. However what could be possible is that they never came to the idea of using wheels for moving around, since floating rocks are much more convenient for that. Wheels would only see usage in form of gearwheels and the like and not as "roadwheels".

I'm gonna nope this.

When you say "without the wheel," what I hear is "without cyclic behavior."

A wheel is a device that deals with everything equally. Using it for conveyance is useful because it keeps everything a fixed distance from the axle. This is the same characteristic that makes it useful as a gear, or a rolling pin, or the axle itself.

Since the essence of a machine is the ability to perform a behavior multiple times, in the same manner, I'm going to say that it is impossible to do that without some mechanism that constrains the machine to that cyclic behavior. Thus, no wheels means no machines.

# Aquatic Aliens

Without an immediately available friction surface on which to apply force, the wheel would have significantly less utility in the early tech tree of a civilization of undersea (or possibly airborne) creatures. Apart from gears, pulleys, and such, the basic wheel could actually be almost useless to them.

# Yes, easily and believably

(this is my first long answer, please feel free to fix any formatting issues.)

Several answers are trying to explain how repetitive actions and power generation require rotary motion in some form. No, they really don't, springs are sufficient at all stages of development. Pivots or ball and socket joints will help, and I'll point them out, but they aren't necessary. Same with floating rocks and ambient temperature superconductors.

## Early Machines

Their earliest hand-operated machines are comparable to the shadoof, an ancient water pump which partially automates repetitively lifting buckets of water. The common design uses a counterweighted pole pivoting in some fixed frame, the operator sustains an oscillation between kinetic energy in the moving pole and gravitational energy in the counterweight. For the anti-rotation purists, there's a variation which stores the energy elastically instead of gravitationally by using a flexible pole, rigidly attached to the frame. Some shadoofs have the operator manually tilt the bucket every cycle to empty it, but your aliens will automate this by bumping the bucket against the lip of the outlet chute to tilt the bucket.

Trip hammers and other cyclic linear machines are functionally a shadoof in reverse. Water fills a bucket, bending a springy pole until the bucket descends past a supporting lip. With that support removed the bucket suddenly tips, the springy pole jerks upwards and the cycle repeats. This is their equivalent to our water mills, but no wheels, pulleys, or pivots, just automated up-down motion. Transforming that motion into more complicated looping paths is possible, but isn't the highest priority.

These cyclic linear machines are enough to start their early industry, operating bellows to heat furnaces, well and mine pumps, grain elevators, etc. I'll skip the long process where they develop precision metrology, but screws, cylinders, and rotary motion (though helpful) aren't required to design or manufacture optically flat surfaces, matched parallel-sided gauge blocks, and comparators to enable precisely shaped components for complex machines. All these parts are mostly hand-finished at this stage.

## Automation

Complex sequences of actions are possible without any rotary motion. Ancient and modern irrigation systems use sliding gates to control water, and ancient water clock mechanisms demonstrate the existence of a logical path from manual gates through to complicated weighted, floated, or sprung gates where a small trickle of water can automatically control large flows, even if surviving examples had wheels. Modern car automatic transmissions frequently use hydraulic logic to quickly, smoothly, and reliably switch between different clutch combinations, though they often use a (shudder) rotary pump to create flow.

They develop steam engines, pneumatic, and hydraulic tools that use linear motion and slide valves, with overall designs comparable to our earliest steam pumps and pneumatic jackhammers. The reciprocating linear motion of these components conveniently matches all their established reversed-shadoof linear infrastructure. Their progress is slightly more difficult because we used rotary lathes and cylindrical grinding equipment to manufacture close-fitting components. Shapes with flat sides meeting with either sharp or consistently curved corners are harder to make and harder to seal, they'll use shapers to generate rough flats (video), then grind and lap them to suitable flatness and precision in the same way we produce surface plates and optical flats. Drilled holes will be replaced by stamping and punching, both linear operations. Assemblies would use nails and rivets, with wedges and linear ratchets for adjustment. Avoiding rotary saws and rolling mills would increase costs, but reciprocating alternatives will work.

With access to linear steam engines and potentially internal combustion engines, they start working on compound motion and mobile machines. If you bring in pivots and ball joints you can have walking earthmoving and construction machines, but caterpillars and cephalopods are the existence proof that flexible joints are sufficient. The Steam Caterpillar can move smoothly with two pistons per bimorph flexure leg, using a simple sequencing valve to coordinate all the legs. Optional steering could use added pistons to slightly bend the body like a live caterpillar, or run all the left legs on one sequencer, right legs on another, and adjust the relative speed like our tracked vehicles. A single ball joint or pivot per leg would help, but multiple joints in each leg just add more and more complexity to controlling and balancing the machine. Sailboats work, as do springy oscillating fans, fins, and sea-snakes.

## Electricity

They can use electricity, first with solenoids, then voice coils and reciprocating linear induction motors, using these to drive accurate machines or power linear compressors. In the real world oscillating linear motors are used for some small pumps where their increased noise and vibration don't matter. Their humming noise and vibrations are familiar to users of most aquarium air pumps, and speakers where generating noise is the design objective. Parts of Non-oscillating linear motors must extend along the entire length of their travel path, limiting them to pre-planned routes. Not having access to turbines will increase the cost of electricity, but you can still have planes with oscillating flapping wings powered by linear combustion engines, or pulse-jet and pulse-detonation engines, plus ramjets if you can get fast enough.

Several steps of modern semiconductor manufacturing require high vacuum, usually achieved with turbomolecular vacuum pumps. Banning rotary motion would require changing to oil diffusion pumps, but with that exception most of the machines would work similarly.

## Final thoughts

Throughout this I've tried to avoid using the word flexure, which is the proper engineering term for most of these flexible joints. They're everywhere in nature and the built environment, from car leaf springs to inside the tiny pushbuttons on appliances. Compared to regular pinned joints, they don't require greasing to prevent wear or exclude contaminants, but they usually have a preferred position, limited range of motion, and limited load-bearing capacity.

All this reciprocating motion is going to create more noise and vibration. I hope they don't have sensitive hearing.

My imaginary justification for not wanting circular objects and pivots is simple, their primitive society has survived centuries of political instability. Their leaders were constantly overthrown by coups and civil wars, until any associates of troublemakers were severely punished. Cylinders, cones, and spheres can roll, therefore they're forbidden for their revolutionary tendencies.

• This. I think you should the term flexure at the beginning, though - it is what it is. Also while you go into the negatives of flexures nicely, there are also some quite mentionable positives, including their ability to restrain 5 degrees of freedom in one piece, and the resulting higher precision. Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 8:36

The Inca civilization never developed the wheel beyond use for children's toys despite being one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas and included innovations such as roads, advanced engineering and mathmatics, terraced farming (the cultivated crops in mountains that are harsh to farming even in the modern day.).

As was fitting a civilization that lived in a mountainous region of the world (The Andes are especially difficult to navigate to this day) having carts would be a problem as they would tend to roll down hill and off cliffs. The Inca instead used Llamas as pack animals that they would lead on journeys along the roads from city to city.

There is also some debate as to whether the Inca could have stood better against the Spanish had they not have had the misfortune of being in a succession war at the time of first contact. The famous Inca Roads were not ideal for the Spanish to travel (the reason for this is, because of a lack of use of wheeled carts, these roads were made with steps for the inclines, which the Spanish horses hated, making travel difficult to say nothing of supplies that had to be pulled by draft horses.).

It's important to understand that the wheel is pretty useful because it can spin forever (assuming you can reasonably apply force) and thus apply unbounded quantity motion to a system.

I'm not certain that floating rocks could fulfill that need -- if you think about it, what is a floating rock? It's a rock that travels in on direction. We already have that in the form of regular rocks -- they also travel in one direction. The key difference is you have opposition -- this could be a great energy source I'm certain, but if left to their own devices the rocks are just going to travel to their lowest energy state (regular rocks to the ground, floating rocks to whatever height the magnetic field strength is equal to the force of gravity).

Without a wheel, or some other means, you have no way to reset the floating rocks to a state that allows for more energy to continue to flow, so no work can be done with them. If you had say a single point where rocks converged to went up and then went back down (like a geyzer), you could use this energy to power something, but probably the best solution here would be a floating-rock coughwatercough wheel.

Floating rocks would certainly be useful in a lot of scenarios, but I'm not certain that a civilization could grow and thrive beyond say our medievil era without a wheel. The industrial revolution would be very difficult, more difficult for us and it only took - 150 years to happen.

Do not use sockets - sockets are the slippery slope (hah!) towards wheels.

You did not specify how those floating rocks of yours work, but i am just going to assume they can be harnessed as a mobility platform, thereby nixing one of the first needs for 'wheels' (I am going to use 'wheels for anything that rotates without movement in axial direction (so screws would not count as wheels, treetrunks rolling below a stone slab would).

We had bamboo and circular-crossection wood that gave us a first leg-up in the technology game - find a nice specimen and you have a ready-made perfect axle without any hassle - use it for transportation, as a fulcrum for a lever, as an axle in a waterwheel. You rely ever-more on it's use, and soon arrive at the need to manufacture them - metal or stone both do not naturally form into round cross-sections, but you look at the 'prototypes' and know which way to go.

But what if we did not have that? If all your plants materials have a triangular, quadratic, or irregular crossection? No animal bones with circular crossection, no mineral deposits in that shape, nada. - This would push back the invention of the wheel, but we need to offer alternatives, to really make this work - what if your world, besides floating stones, also has a plethora of really good bendable proto joints? - i mean, we seem to have that too, with bamboo and leather, etc., but we need more of this, and a real ecosystem around it: many naturally-flat surfaces, good adhesives, material with many slots, ... all this in the absence of anything circular, and you have the beginnings of a civilization based on bendable-joints. You also need very good lubricants to not stymie the development of rope-based mechanisms, as they need minimal friction on the deflection points, otherwise they are not viable.

Basically you would abolish the idea of 360° rotations, and base your technology on reciprocating, oscillating, and flipping.

I realize that circular crossections have another very nice characteristic: they make the ideal pressure vessels, so water pipes will need to be circular to be used in anything requiring even moderate pressures - though if nature provides good adhesives, ropes, and some nicely straight, quadrilateral-crossectioned (or crosssectionable) planks, the resulting coopered tubes might also serve. Or maybe there is a hollow plant- or animal-based material that has a non-circular crossection, but gets one in response to internal pressure? (Should also give it banana-shape to make extra sure sneaky humans do not find a way to stuff it for axle-use)

As soon as you enter the metalworking ages, there will be wheels, but i gather you just want the civilization to start out without