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In a different question, someone mentioned "technology dichotomy", where they said "you can't invent time travel without first inventing the wheel". Then I read the question In a society of flying beings, would the wheel ever be invented? and they gave remarks about how the wheel probably still would be invented by a flying society because you still need to transport goods.

Then I considered that in an underwater society, it's unlikely that they would invent something designed for smoother travel across the ground. I mean, they can swim, and it's relatively easy to balance something to be carried under water using air.

Would an underwater society ever invent a wheel? I'm curious both about sea floor societies and about societies near the surface.

Note: I am talking about wheels as in "something round or mostly round that rotates along a surface for purposes of mobility". A propeller, a cog or another mostly round rotating object is not a wheel in this context. What is a wheel is anything you might see on a car, a bicycle or even the rock barrels of the Flintstone Mobile.

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    $\begingroup$ In a surface society will slood ever be discovered? $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 7 '17 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ There is no need for the wheel underwater but if your society ever ventures above the water then surely they will develop wheels to travel across land. We would never have invented the submarine unless we had ventured beneath the sea. $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Sep 7 '17 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Nzall, an underwater society has an entirely different viewpoint. We sit here thinking how do they cope without "X", they sit there saying how do we cope without "Y". The wheel, as a round thing to move over even surfaces, is meaningless to them, just as slood is to you. That doesn't mean they won't invent cogs when they need them. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 7 '17 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ You mean a submersible with 1 wheel attach to its behind. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Sep 7 '17 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Define "wheel". A pulley could still be quite useful underwater. A waterwheel would be useful to capture the power of currents. Gears are interlocking wheels. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Sep 7 '17 at 14:00

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Probably, but it depends on a couple of things

Firstly: The weight of the loads they're trying to move. If they only ever move things that can be easily pulled into the open water there is no reason to invent the wheel. Even if the loads are a little too heavy the use of 'buoyant' objects will let you get away without wheels. If, however, you're talking something dense and large like monolithic stone blocks for making underwater ziggurats then you'll need something, since mass increases faster than the amount of surface you can attach buoyant things to. You'll be better off using carved rollers, and from there it's a short step to the idea of wheels.

Secondly: The availability of buoyant objects. How easy is it to capture air? Are there any fish with swim bladders you can domesticate? Are you near a shoreline you can get driftwood from? If getting sufficiently buoyant objects is an issue then wheels are more likely, if you have a domesticated Crane whale available then probably less so.

Thirdly: What is the sea floor like? Wheels are only really effective on hard material: if the sea floor is sludge or sand a wheel as we might recognise it will be worse than a sled (again, the weight of the load influences this), if it's hard rock then wheels are again more likely

Fourthly: Currents. An analogy for this is that planes/airships don't work well in high or unpredictable winds. A heavy load with a lot of buoyancy or people swimming with it will get pushed around by currents, tides and waves where a wheeled cart might not.

So really it depends on what your people are trying to do. Simple kelp farmers probably won't need wheels, but if you're trying to build a city to last a thousand years then you probably will need wheels. Or a Shoggoth.

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    $\begingroup$ And Shoggoths come with their own disadvantages. $\endgroup$ – JAB Sep 7 '17 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ @JAB Tekeli-li... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Sep 7 '17 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ Oh come now, there are no disadvantages to using Shoggoths..... $\endgroup$ – Anoplexian Sep 7 '17 at 14:54
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It depends on where exactly your underwater society lives (i.e. at what depth). If they live in caves on the walls of a chasm, for example, there isn't really any flat ground that wheels would be useful in (I imagine wires strung between the two faces and packages sent across almost like a cable car).

However, if they live at the sea floor, wheels might be useful for transporting heavy building materials for long distances, especially if the surface is really far away (so collecting air would be a trial in itself). I guess if they live in coastal regions/places where the sea is quite shallow, it negates the issue about collecting air for buoyancy, given that the surface is very close. I suppose they'd only need to invent a wheel if the alternative mode of transportation was even more hassle!

(All these examples are for transporting heavy goods. Wheels are useful in land for moving people faster than on foot, but I don't think you'd get quite the same benefit underwater. If you want to move people long distances in a small time frame, then riptides/currents would probably be more helpful.)

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  • $\begingroup$ oceanic currents are usually slow, and riptides for shallow waters. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Sep 8 '17 at 6:34
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It depends strictly on your definition of wheel.

If you mean a wheel as in cart wheel or car wheel then the answer is almost certainly "no" (aside pure research or "curiosity").

OTOH if you mean some device using "rolling friction" to facilitate movement then it's highly likely rolling bearings will be in wide use as soon as some serious mechanic equipment will be invented.

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Wheels are much more then just useful for vehicles.

Wheels or gears are an important module for most mechanical assemblies. So even while they might not use the wheel for vehicles, they will definitely use it to build complex machines.

Eventually, they might even find wheels useful for displacing especially heavy objects. if they want to carve out rocks from a cave, wheels and tracks might be important to get those heavy rocks out.

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Almost certainly. It might be an example of pure research with no practical benefit, but someone will invent it.

http://mathtourist.blogspot.com/2011/05/riding-on-square-wheels.html

Will it be put into mass production? Almost certainly not.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know about "almost certainly" but it is true that inventing a wheel is not the same as doing anything useful with it. For example, the Pre-Colombian Mesoamericans were known to make wheels but only as toys. $\endgroup$ – EldritchWarlord Sep 7 '17 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @EldritchWarlord I mean if the society is allowed to persist long then with probabilty one it will invent a wheel. Though I suppose the society could invent nuclear weapons first and self-annihilate. $\endgroup$ – emory Sep 8 '17 at 16:16
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Quite possibly, certainly in terms of rollers/conveyor belts at least. For moving things much denser than water, especially during production, a wheel makes a lot of sense. If it doesn't get invented before then, then I think that your industrial revolution will bring the advent of some sort of wheel.

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Not Necessarily

A wheel is defined as:

a circular object that revolves on an axle and is fixed below a vehicle or other object to enable it to move easily over the ground.

So simply having gears or pulleys or any other roundish object on an axil is not sufficient to have a 'wheel'.

Wheels are important to us because A) we have them and are used to using them and B) they work well on hard, flat ground.

However if you don't already have them, and don't have a lot of hard flat ground they become somewhat useless. As some have noted, Aztecs and others did not have wheels beyond that of toys.

As such, not only is it conceivable that a water (or air) based society not develop wheels during its industrialization, if it encountered land it may still not develop wheels. This is especially true if the land is very rocky, heavily forested or very soft for example.

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If you want them to, sure. While I generally dislike questions that start with a giant wall of text explaining everything about the world in question, it would be kind of useful in this situation.

If there are surface/land dwellers in your world, the underwater civilization will likely "discover" a wheel dropped off a sunken vessel at some point. Heck, even just observing a round coin or other object rolling along is enough to spur the invention of this, it's really not a complicated concept.

A standard wheel's usefulness is really limited to two dimensional movement, which is generally less relevant in an oceanic society. I would honestly expect an oceanic society to operate more like the natives of Dune and temporarily tame a large ocean creature to move heavy loads / long distances. Things in oceans tend to aggressively consume things smaller than them, so a wagon rolling across a seabed is more likely to run into trouble with deep ocean predators than a wagon on a prairie. On the other hand, if you're riding a blue whale I think most things will generally leave you alone.

So...would they have wheels? Sure. They probably won't use them to make carts/wagons for transporting goods though.

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Yes.

We humans are in a similar situation to deep-sea crabs, our substance is just less dense. There are still currents (wind), pressure, and creatures that can propel themselves vertically for reasonable distances (birds).

If a species that could move vertically (birds/fish) did become the apex species, consider how much effort it would be to move high enough through their substance, capture less-dense material, and pull it down to attach to things; vs just pulling it along on rollers. It might work well in the shallows where the vertical distance is small, but wheels would make huge swaths of the seabed easier to colonise.

The problem of wheels sinking into silt can be overcome with roads or rails, just like we have colonised coastal deltas, sandy deserts, dense forests and so on. It only takes a few creatures putting down rocks to help their carts along over bad ground for the idea of roads to form.

Given the currents near the surface moving silt around, there might need to be some innovative kind of material that allows the silt to wash through but keeps wheels elevated (a lattice? sponge-like? Rails more popular than roads?). Or just something simple like street-sweepers.

Given enough technological advancement, it might even be preferable as a short-distance transport method. Consider a salaryman taking a train for the convenience of using a laptop, even though he could drive himself in a car, or even walk if it is a local tube network. They'd have the added advantage of being able to pipe in lower-resistance substance (air) for trains from the shallows, whereas we have to make special vacuum pumps to get lower resistance for things like hyperloop.

As for the possibility of never using things too heavy for a few creatures to carry, it would make it a lot easier for a warring army [1] to protect their soldiers from attack if they could build structures out of large quantities of stone, relatively quickly vs burrowing into silt. A wheelbarrow would help for the feudal ages, and trucks are a natural progression. If this is a utopian society without violence, they may still want to build grand religious structures to honour gods.

[1] Conventional bullets won't work underwater, Mythbusters tried firing a 50cal sniper rifle through water and it "expended all its energy within three feet", for ranged battle an army would need torpedoes, dissolving poisons, 'air-dropped' bombs, etc.

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The biggest point to the existence of the wheel, is about gravity and inertia. Regardless of where the wheel is used, it is meant to be used to overcome inertia. Inertia exists everywhere in the universe. To move a boulder underwater without using a wheel, would be difficult to say the least. While not the only solution, the easiest one to moving a massive object that is at rest upon the ground - whether it is on the sea floor or an exposed landmass - is to set it upon a wheeled device that can alleviate the problem of inertia, making it easier to push or pull.

An underwater society could achieve civilization without wheels using a ballast system for heavy transport, but only on large scale. For everyday movement of heavier than buoyancy allows materials, they would have needed to invent some kind of wheeled apparatus. This is of course provided such a society is remotely like ours. A society of fish who just require swimming around foraging for food and have no sense or development of socio-political evolution would obviously not have any kind of industrialized society to require movement of heavy materials.

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I'm pretty sure they will invent the wheel. If they life under water, at one point they most probably want to be able to move faster than only swimming with their limbs. Also they would want to be able to carry/float around bigger objects. As we know, any efficient mechanical underwater engine uses a wheel as a propeller (external or internal), which is basically a wheel.

Although it might be possible, that they won't use the wheel as we did: to roll around.

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Of course they will invent wheels, and use them on vehicles too!

Counter-arguments involving the sea floor are just totally silly. In our world the vast majority of terrain is mountainous, bumpy, muddy, overgrown, or covered by... water. So we flatten terrain, build roads, railroads, bridges, cable cars etcetera to facilitate the effective use of wheels, with all the advantages they offer. An underwater civilization will do exactly the same, even while flying (swimming) is the more natural and common mode of transport downthere.

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Yes! The overwater explorers would need them!

SCOBA gear is heavy: as Scotty says, "it's not just the whales, it's the water!" As they explore their planet's final frontier, they will need mechanization to carry fairly enormous life-support equipment.

You can imagine they will extensively test this equipment on the seafloor ballasted to add the vehicle's displacement to its weight, to simulate its performance on the surface.

Why plunge into the gasping void?

Airflight. It's mind-blowingly faster than swimming. Your best subs can go 30 knots (and make a LOT of noise) - but an airplane can go 500 with no noise at all. At the very least, it's of great interest for the military.

Space exploration. You will not be going to space without going through atmosphere first, even if there is scarcely a difference between the two.

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Carrying anything with exceptional weight to it and no buoyancy would be very difficult underwater - but if you attach two simple wheels to a barrel, it would become much easier to move.

This alone means that, at some point, the wheel would probably be invented.

Now, eventually it would likely be surpassed by simply creating buoyant rafts that can be dragged behind - but the natural usefulness of being able to drag something across a surface* is too simple and elegant a solution to pass up.

  • That being said, sleds might be more popular. But for getting across rocky or rough terrain, some underwater inhabitants might still use simple wheels.
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"it's relatively easy to balance something to be carried under water using air"

This is mostly true. What is missing here is the fact that it would not be easy for an aquatic species to produce the means of doing that. It would be essentially impossible for this society to treat hides or bladders, which means using raw bladders for this. You would be replacing those untreated bladders so frequently that it would never be a viable method of transport.

That doesn't necessarily mean that they would develop the wheel though. Again, they would run into a problem with materials. Specifically with the material for axles.

An aquatic species would likely never end up as tool users, or anything more than very primitive tool users. The likely outcome for such a society is migratory grazers.

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  • $\begingroup$ The biggest question is where do you get the air? An advanced society could compress it to make it sink, or use a chemical reaction to generate gas, but earlier on it's really quite tricky. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Sep 8 '17 at 16:43
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A four-wheeled cart or vehicle might not be practical, unless sections of the ocean floor were flat or flattened enough to make them work.

However, a one- or two-wheeled platform with spiked wheels (heavy duty, longer tire studs) might be useful for conveying larger but not excessively heavy loads. Or old or sick or confused people.

It would be relatively easy to stabilize, especially with multiple adults alongside, or trained sea creatures such as dolphins strapped to it. Dolphins might be induced to swim with a platform between or behind them, with no wheels, but wheels would come in handy if you needed to set the item down.

This is a similar scenario to native American use of dogs and the travois / drag sled. The greater boyancy from being under water, in addition to domesticated animal assistance, would make it doable for moderate loads.

If I lived under the sea, I believe I would invent this, if I had a means of making the parts. Maybe specialists who can swim close to undersea lava flows could figure out a way to cast metal - most of which would rust immediately... But they might come up with aluminum eventually. Or lash together the wheel shaped skeletons of a useful creature.

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Paddle wheels to facilitate faster swimming, like a bicycle wheel. I believe they have these underwater bicycles on SpongeBob. It would still be a wheel shape rather than a propeller, so I don't think it is ruled out.

There could also be a hand held paddle wheel device, held in front of the swimmer, with pedals you would pump with your arms rather than feet. That way you could pull other people or a relatively "floating" load behind you.

It would not have to contact the ocean floor, or anything but water.

What if they made long swimmable tubes for traversing stretches of ocean that were too dark, or had hostile creatures, or had a strong current, and the wheel or wheels would skim along the inside surface.

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