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The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

-- Douglas Adams.

Humans can't fly. Not themselves. Sure, we can climb aboard a plane, a hot air balloon, or a rocket ship. But we can't flap our arms and soar.

Since we can't fly, we had to find other ways of moving around. Since walking wasn't fast enough, we developed a number of technologies for moving around, most of which are wheel based. Carts, bikes, cars, trains. We use those technologies not only to move ourselves around, but to move other stuff around too.

Birds can fly, bats can fly, and even squid are getting the hang of it. Some birds are pretty clever too. I can imagine a society of birds, instead of humans.

Since flight is so much faster than walking, I can imagine birds not having the need to develop faster modes of transportation. It's also so vastly different from groundbased modes of transport, that I doubt they would develop any method of moving heavy loads over the ground (and thus the wheel).

So would a society of flying beings (not necessarily birds, they might have hand-like appendages) develop the wheel?

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    $\begingroup$ For those of us not really believing the flying squid thing. $\endgroup$ – Qix Oct 1 '14 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Can this society of flying beings walk? Can they land on the ground if they wish to? $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 2 '14 at 7:36
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    $\begingroup$ They'd probably need wheels for wheel chairs. For the differently-abled. $\endgroup$ – Mr. Mascaro Oct 3 '14 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ In the world you're building, do you want the flying people to have wheeled vehicles or not? Either is possible, so an effective answer will require that we know what you're trying to achieve. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 4 '14 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not wedded to either, I haven't decided yet. Also, I didn't mean the wheel as a shape per se, but more the wheel as a metaphor for transport. $\endgroup$ – SQB Oct 4 '14 at 20:29

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I would certainly expect the wheel to be invented. Sure, the society can fly, but can barrels of fine wine, flour, or iron ore? If the society grows large enough, it will eventually need to transport heavy goods and that practically requires the wheel. Whether food, metal, or wood, pretty much every soceity starts to transport goods heavier than one person can easily carry for the whole distance. Flying is hard, trying to transport heavy goods that way prior to the invention of an airplane or hot air balloon just wouldn't happen.

Now, if there are no tamable herd animals such as ox or horses to pull a wheeled vehicle, then the wheel might not ever be needed, but as long as there is some flightless animal they can use, some ground based form of transportation would likely be invented. While wheels usually arise here, sleds of some form could also work.

As others have mentioned, wheels in other forms such as millstones and pulleys, even door hinges would also still be useful in your culture and I would expect them to be invented.

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    $\begingroup$ Note, however, that the early South-American cultures did not invent the wheel. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 2 '14 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk I am aware. That is why I mentioned that if there is no animal you can use to pull wheeled contraptions, the incentive to inventing the wheel is much less. But I feel the more a society expands into different physical environments and grows technologically the more likely the wheel is. $\endgroup$ – Vulcronos Oct 2 '14 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ Is the absence of the wheel in the early SA cultures not related to the mountainous nature of the region? $\endgroup$ – Dancrumb Oct 2 '14 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Dancrumb Its a comba. Mountains and jungles slow travel down and lessen the benefit of a wheel. Without herd animals to do the work for you, it isn't worth building roads and clearing the area out. In my opinion it is a double whammy. $\endgroup$ – Vulcronos Oct 2 '14 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ You can easily move heavy weights without the wheel. Water is another good way of lowering friction, and in a lot of places, removes the need for road building. For a couple of centuries, it was efficient enough to be worth digging a network of artificial waterways - canals - to extend the land area reachable by water transport. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Oct 5 '14 at 19:27
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moving things around (mathematics argument)

The wheel, or basically any spherical object, has the advantage of being the simplest shape which center of mass remains at the same height when rolling (something cubes don't have for example). That makes it the easiest shape to move around, thus the easiest way to move things around. This is mathematics, and mathematics are universal.

However, it is totally imaginable that rolling things on tree trunks (like older civilizations used to do), or just have them carried around by animals (cows, horses...) would be enough.


going places (biology argument)

If your flying beings are anything like humans, they probably are lazy too. It is actually a principle of biology that living things try to get the most done with the least energy spent. So eventually, they'd want a way to go places without having to fly. Just biology.

However, because they wouldn't be afraid of falling from heights, they might develop some sort of air gliding devices before carts. That might just be enough.


efficient machines (engineering argument)

Pulleys, gears, belt transmissions... All these mechanical systems somewhat derive from the wheel. And up until now, mechanical engineers have not found better suited shapes for the work. They allow to leverage the energy efficiently and regulate torque.


conclusion: yes

So basically I'd say, yes, the wheel would be invented... just maybe a little later. But the circle is just a very useful shape.

Of course, environmental factors might delay its invention. I'm thinking tiny islands (like Panama's San Blas), dense jungle and steep mountains, swampy/sandy ground...

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  • $\begingroup$ Concerning you second point (about biology) - how do you explain sports? $\endgroup$ – Vorac Oct 2 '14 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ Sports, or more generally entertainment, or more generally pleasure, generate neurotransmitters in the brain (which is actually the definition of pleasure) and we crave these — we can even get addicted to these. That's the biology answer. The philosophy answer, I guess, relies somewhere between Freud's sexual tension and Pascal Blaise's need to escape existential questions through entertainment. $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Oct 2 '14 at 10:13
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The wheel is not necessarily an automatic development for humans. Classical Mesoamerica (Mayans, Aztecs/Mixica, etc.) didn't have the wheel. At base, the issue there was a combination of lots of dense forest and jungle, on the one hand, and a lack of large domestic animals on the other. So things like carts just didn't really click, as it were.

So in direct answer to your question, you can have it either way, as you choose. There's no necessity about it. If everyone can fly, they might find wheels useful anyway for cartage and so forth, but on the other hand, they might not.

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    $\begingroup$ Mayans did develop the wheel, but they mostly used it in toys and smaller mechanisms, and never seemed to use them for for transportation or the like. $\endgroup$ – fluffy Oct 2 '14 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ Neat: I didn't know that about the toys. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 2 '14 at 2:30
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Rephrase your question to

in a society of walking beings, would the wheel ever be invented?

and you have the answer.

The wheel is not about enabling anything. The wheel makes it only easier to transport goods and enable higher capacity.

The same would apply flying beings.

If you observe the pidgeons, for example, you will notice they prefer walking on short distances. Every being prefers doing things with the minimal energy required.

Why do we use rivers as transport means? If you study a bit river transportation, you'll notice, that the speed of that transport is slower than the walking speed. Why do people used it? Because it allowed them to transport more goods they could carry.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but as I tried to explain, walking is moving on the ground. Going from one mode of ground transport to another seems natural. But going from air transport to ground transport, seems like a big step to me. $\endgroup$ – SQB Oct 2 '14 at 6:09
  • $\begingroup$ People were thinking about flight from the very early times (think of the story of Icarus). Just seeing animals using that means of movement means getting the concept. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 2 '14 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ I find it funny that you highlighted the words enabling and easier as if they are mutual exclusive. To enable is to make a thing easier. $\endgroup$ – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Oct 3 '14 at 12:25
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So would a society of flying beings (not necessarily birds, they might have hand-like appendages) develop the wheel?

Yes.

Pulleys are still one of the more vital simple machines, and flighted brings would still need force multipliers. If anything they might need pulleys more given their freedom of movement.

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Definitely.

This is a simple answer, but consider this counter-question as definitive proof:

In a society of FLIGHTLESS beings, would WINGS ever be invented?

The answer, quite obviously, is yes.

Rhe transference to and utilisation of different dimensions is such a natural step in improving efficiency and effectiveness of transportation, that I would argue the ability to do so is a requirement for the definition of "society".

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There is an important conceptual precursor to wheeled transport: carrying stuff from one place to another. Humans and our near relations (e.g. Homo habilis) had a penchant for carrying things long distance. You don't spend days smashing rocks into useful shapes and then just leave them there.

Our closest living relatives, the chimps, will carry one thing maybe 3 meters, but even though they are nomadic, they never got the hang of carrying things long distance.

If you're not carrying many things long distances, cartage doesn't improve things for you and then wheels become a mere curiosity. Cartage was not originally any faster than walking because wheels like a road.

I suspect that the wheeled vehicle was difficult to envision because the geographic distribution suggests a great deal of copying from neighbors.

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Do not only think about the wheels of a car. The wheel is a very important invention used not only in transportation. They are also used as pulley,l waterwheels, gears and a lot of other functions as well. Even if your species can fly, transporting stuff in the air is not considered very efficient because they can't lift a lot of extra weight.

Transportation would still rely on boats, and wheeled vehicles would still be useful.

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I am going to offer a counter-trend answer here and say that there is little to no need for the wheel This is an alternate world theory for reference.

Assumptions

  • Humanoid, with human level intelligence
  • Human penchant for setting down roots (creating cities etc)
  • Human penchant for expansion and trade

Basically I am making sure I point out that this is an "if humans could fly" scenario.

The primary reason for creatures that can fly to create and utilize the wheel is encumbrance. Being speedy and able to fly is great but that may not facilitate the transportation of goods. Its not the only reason to consider the wheel a likely technology but it seems the most obvious. Moving Stuff

Alternate World

  • A world with a significantly lower gravitational pull
  • Thats it really

Now, there are a host of other concerns with a low gravity planet. Can the atmosphere be created maintained etc. But lets skip over that for the moment.

Low gravity would allow flying creatures to carry significantly more around with them reducing the need to develop the wheel. Could they still come up with it? Sure, it just wouldn't be as impactful and may get skipped over as air based travel would be easier to use and less costly. Maybe instead of the wheel and ground transport technology goes the direction of blimps and things earlier on because it is easier to do.

Just an alternate idea/answer.

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Not a directed reply, but more of a comment about the supposition of meso-american cultures not having the 'wheel'. I would like to some sources on this since most reputable sources i have found will discredit this.

http://tcmam.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/did-pre-columbian-mesoamericans-use-wheels/

Even Wikipedia discredits this notion. The wheel was used in many aspects of culture from children toys to sealing temple doors. They did not have a chariot or cart pulled by their pack animal. And yes south America had 1 pack animal.

So i would assume that all of the 'simple machines' would likely be too useful for a civilization to not discover. Levers, pulleys, wheels, axles, all things that are used in many devices for all of mankind. Even birds have been caught using levers. So one can assume as mentioned that the lower energy cost of moving carggo on the ground would well be worth it.

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Per Liath's comment, it would depend on whether or not these flying beings have legs/are capable of walking, or if the only appendages they have are wings, and/or their body structure in general.

If it is the former and assuming that their physiology is similar to Earth's birds, I believe that it may be likely that they would develop the wheel eventually. Constant flying (near 24/7) would be awfully tiring, and we do see flight-capable birds on the ground and wandering around.

Goodness knows I've seen some that decide to slowly walk across the road where there's a lot of cars and they're at high risk of being run over - and I'm always thinking, 'you have wings! Why don't you just fly across the road?! Surely it'd be safer/easier!' but seeing as they don't and decide to leisurely make their way across... my guess is that they're resting their wings. It doesn't seem to make much sense otherwise.

So, if these beings are also capable of spending some time on the ground (or a flat surface of some description), then yes, I do believe it's likely. If say, however, their society is based in the trees or something, which they hop or fly around to, and there aren't any sort of "platforms", or walkways between them, then a wheel would be next to useless for them. Wheels are used for transporting things from point A to point B, but if the path between point A and B aren't suitable (don't cater) to the usage of wheels...

TL;DR:

It would depend on their A. physiology, and B. societal infrastructure.

[EDIT] And after reading some of the other answers and thinking about it some more... No one society exists in a vacuum indefinitely - sooner or later, they'll discover another completely different one. So another thing to ponder would be, would there only be just the one society of flying beings on that planet? I mean, other nearby societies may be ground-based. Assuming that some form of trade may one day occur between this flight-based society and other non-flight-based societies... sooner or later, someone's going to invent the wheel, would be my guess.

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It depends on a number of factors. Not all civilizations developed the wheel, and of the civilizations which did, not all of them used it for transportation (another answer cites the Maya as a civilization of this second type). But while a society of fliers might not develop wheeled modes of transportation for themselves, they might develop the wheel for other reasons.

It wasn't until the development of mechanical engines that wheeled transportation gained any speed advantage over traveling by foot or riding, and those engines are, historically speaking, a fairly recent development. For most of the wheel's history, its advantage was scalability, not speed. A human with a wheelbarrow, or a beast of burden hooked up to a cart, could transport much larger and heavier loads than that same person or animal could carry unassisted. Speed might suffer some, but you could carry much more stuff with fewer people or animals. You could also carry large-sized loads that, while not necessarily heavy, were too awkward to carry on a single person or animal.

Why did your fliers not see that need? Are they strong enough to carry any load they could imagine while still flying? Is the local terrain not well-suited to wheeled transports (arid and sandy, perhaps, or covered with snow, or so humid and rainy that the ground is almost always muddy)? Such a society might use runners instead of wheels for ground transportation: just like some real-world societies did. Or they might come up with another answer entirely.

What about other uses of the wheel? By some accounts, some simple machines (for example, the pulley) could be rephrased as alternative applications of the wheel. It is possible that a society of fliers might develop these without the wheel, but once they had the pulley, I can't imagine that the leap to the wheel would be very large.

It might be easier to work with something similar to the Maya, as cited in another answer. Mayans knew about the wheel, but they didn't use it for transportation. Your fliers might have come to similar conclusions, depending on their situation. But the situation matters.

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I think the wheel would not be invented. There is a lot of assuming that moving stuff is a requirement for a society but that may not be true in this case. Humans move stuff because it is easier than going to where the stuff is located. If flight is easy and accessible, then when you want food or shelter, you go where that is located. There is no incentive to move stuff if it is sufficiently easy to get to where the stuff already exists.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unless you need more than one thing in the same location. e.g. you want food at your house. $\endgroup$ – user16107 Jan 29 '16 at 15:54

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