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Why the Wheel Is Round

Muscles, Technology, and How We Make Things Move

There is no part of our bodies that fully rotates—be it a wrist or ankle or arm in a shoulder socket, we are made to twist only so far. And yet there is no more fundamental human invention than the wheel—a rotational mechanism that accomplishes what our physical form cannot. Throughout history, humans have developed technologies powered by human strength, complementing the physical abilities we have while overcoming our weaknesses. Providing a unique history of the wheel and other rotational devices—like cranks, cranes, carts, and capstans—Why the Wheel Is Round examines the contraptions and tricks we have devised in order to more efficiently move—and move through—the physical world.

Steven Vogel combines his engineering expertise with his remarkable curiosity about how things work to explore how wheels and other mechanisms were, until very recently, powered by the push and pull of the muscles and skeletal systems of humans and other animals. Why the Wheel Is Round explores all manner of treadwheels, hand-spikes, gears, and more, as well as how these technologies diversified into such things as hand-held drills and hurdy-gurdies.  Surprisingly, a number of these devices can be built out of everyday components and materials, and Vogel’s accessible and expansive book includes instructions and models so that inspired readers can even attempt to make their own muscle-powered technologies, like trebuchets and ballista.

Appealing to anyone fascinated by the history of mechanics and technology as well as to hobbyists with home workshops, Why the Wheel Is Round offers a captivating exploration of our common technological heritage based on the simple concept of rotation. From our leg muscles powering the gears of a bicycle to our hands manipulating a mouse on a roller ball, it will be impossible to overlook the amazing feats of innovation behind our daily devices.

344 pages | 81 halftones, 64 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biological Sciences: Anatomy, Evolutionary Biology, Natural History, Physiology, Biomechanics, and Morphology


“Biomechanist Vogel . . .  succeeds once again in turning engineers, biologists and the general public onto the beauty, complexity and approachability of his field. He spins an 11-part tale of circular motion that ranges from rotation in biology to rotation driven by biology. Vogel captivates with discussions of engineering feats rooted in circular motion — from plodding horses turning shallow paddle wheels to gears that drive sixteenth-century reading machines — and doesn't stint on his trademark puns and word-play. Mixing findings in his own field with those from mechanics, dynamics and historical analysis, he creates a delightful perspective on the wonders of whirl. There is even a bonus chapter on how to make simple rotational models, including an entertaining but difficult-to-use drill. Let the good times roll.”


“A brilliant history of technology. . . . This is a wonderful book, in the literal sense of the word, full of wonders of nature, human invention, history and the sheer joy of looking at the world through the eyes of a keen—and amiable—scientific observer.”

Wall Street Journal

“Few, if any, engineering books can have started by encouraging the reader to go through a series of physical exercises in which they see how far they can twist their extended arm, turn their wrist and rotate their head. It may sound more like pilates than technology, but Why the Wheel Is Round takes us deep into the world of biomechanics—in essence how muscles pulling on bones allow us to carry out tasks and how biological materials like wood, horn and shell fit them for toolmaking.”

Engineering and Technology

“Posthumously published, Why the Wheel Is Round was written by Vogel (1940–2015), a celebrated researcher and author in the field of biomechanics. He focuses on the intersection of biology (specifically the physics of muscles, joints, and other “moving parts”) and mechanical engineering—often comparing a biological system to a mechanical system. The author’s final book is specifically about the design of mechanical wheels and the rotation found in nature. It covers both a brief history of human inventions that have some rotational aspects, natural analogs to these systems, and instructions for building simple demonstration models. This book, like Vogel’s previous titles, is written in a conversational style that makes it accessible to laypeople and undergraduates, even though it addresses complex topics. It is appealing both as a popular science title and as an educational reading tool for graduate students, faculty, and other researchers interested in the field of biomechanics. Recommended.”


“A revolution about revolutions, Why the Wheel Is Round is Vogel’s microhistory of humans doing what doesn’t come naturally: creating and powering rotational tools and machines.  To make muscle-powered rotary machinery — querns, bow drills, whims, lathes, and horse ferries — requires the invention of axels, cranks, and ropes.  How this clever technology works, and why it works the way it does, is revealed clearly through the lens of biomechanics. Vogel is fascinated by spins, turns, and twists, and his enthusiasm for the artifacts around us is more than infectious.  He incites an urge to invent and build, and, fortunately, includes instructions for doing so.  Happiness runs in a circular motion.”

John Long, author of Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us about the History of Life and the Future of Technology

“Reading this book, I found myself being pulled along by the curiosity of Vogel as he connects the power provided by the muscles of humans and animals with the immense variety of rotating objects invented over the course of human history. Despite the book’s title, wheels are only one part of the story. Firmly grounded in Vogel’s deep understanding of physical principles, the book is as informative as it is entertaining.”

Richard Marsh, Brown University

“Vogel writes with his typical, easy-as-pi style that epitomizes his intense curiosity for all things round. Gear up to read topics revolving around tools, toys, machines, and even animals.  Ever the spokesman for experiments, Vogel goes full circle by ending with an appendix filled with DIY physical models.  Whether you’re a tinkerer in the garage, an inquisitive self-educator, or a budding biomechanist, this page-turner will round out your knowledge of circular motion.”  

Anna Ahn, Harvey Mudd College

Table of Contents


1 Circling Bodies
2 Wheels and Wagons
3. Turning Points—and Pots
4 Going in Circles
5 Or Being Encircled
6 Grabbing Again and Again
7 Turning and Unturning
8 The True Crank
9 Spinning Fibers
10 A Few More Turns
11 Rolling Back Rotation
Appendix: Making Models

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