12

In The Lord of the Rings, wheeled transport is common. Gandalf has a cart, travelling dwarven merchants have them, Gondor had many, the siege engines of Mordor obviously use wheels to get around, and the first mention I remember is that this was the signature of the Wainriders. (Eastern people who attacked Gondor in the second millennium TA).

But I think no carts are ever mentioned in the context of Aman or Beleriand. Everybody just gets around on horse or foot. (Or wings, wolves, hounds and unclothed ainuic flight).

Who invented the wheel in Middle-Earth?

My guesses:

  • The dwarves: They did invent things, did long distance trade in Beleriand, and built roads. Perhaps there is confirmation in some narrative of the Fall of Doriath?

  • Melkor: He invented many things, and obviously could use it for transporting loot and siege equipment.

  • Numenoreans: They also invented things, and would found them useful on their island. Perhaps there is some reference in the Wife of the Mariner.

  • Easterlings: The chariots of the Wainriders where a nasty surprise to the Dunedain.

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    Melkor? Tolkien was old-fashioned enough to attribute prisms and machinery to the powers of evil, but the wheel? I don't know. – Adamant Jul 31 at 8:17
  • @Adamant It is a guess, and not even my first. And it was melkor who thaught the noldor swordforging, and yet swords are not seen as evil in the legendarium – b.Lorenz Jul 31 at 8:27
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    Yes, but Tolkien wasn't a huge fan of war, so I could see him viewing swords as a somewhat evil invention. – Adamant Jul 31 at 8:30
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    Ok. But still, with heroic swords as Narsil and Glamdring abound... I enumerated four possible answers I could think of, two of them evil, and two of them good. I do not imply that Tolkien considered wheels evil. – b.Lorenz Jul 31 at 8:32
  • Something tells me you wouldn't have been able to roll a cart across the Helcaraxë. – Spencer Jul 31 at 12:17
12

There is a passage in "A Description of Númenor" in Unfinished Tales that refers explicitly to wheels (though this only gives a no-later-than answer to "When?" without addressing "Who?"):

Therefore the roads of Númenor were for the most part unpaved, made and tended for riding, since coaches and carriages were little used in the earlier centuries, and heavy cargoes were borne by sea. The chief and most ancient road, suitable for wheels, ran from the greatest port, Rómenna in the east [...]


Wild speculation, but if it is true that no wheeled vehicles were used in Beleriand, one might interpret this passage from the beginning of the Akallabêth

Eönwë came among [the Edain] and taught them

to include the wheel.


However, it is difficult to imagine exactly how a civilization the size implied for the Noldor in Exile to function without the use of wheeled transport. Most significantly: who was supplying Nargothrond with food, and how?

  • And presumably that road from the port was for carts, not 'coaches and carriages'. – David Roberts Aug 2 at 7:05
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    “...it is difficult to imagine exactly how a civilization the size implied for the Noldor in Exile to function without the use of wheeled transport.” Can you imagine the Inca empire? Millions of inhabitants, millions of square kilometres of territory, no wheeled transport. – Mike Scott Aug 5 at 16:41
  • @MikeScott I find it easier to imagine the use of wheeled transport than it is to imagine the Noldor as a people engaged in the amount of hard work necessary to transport the necessary quantities of food. – chepner Aug 5 at 16:56
  • @chepner And yet the Inca managed it. – Mike Scott Aug 5 at 17:25
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    The Inca are not the Noldor. – chepner Aug 5 at 17:27
6

Probably during the First Age

The passage from Unfinished Tales quoted in chepner's answer makes clear that wheeled vehicles, while rare, existed in Númenor "in the early centuries". This puts the invention of the wheel at no later than the early centuries of the Second Age.

In Númenor all journeyed from place to place on horseback;
...
Therefore the roads of Númenor were for the most part unpaved, made and tended for riding, since coaches and carriages were little used in the earlier centuries, and heavy cargoes were borne by sea. The chief and most ancient road, suitable for wheels, ran from the greatest port, Rómenna in the east, to the royal city of Armenelos ...

Unfinished Tales Part Two, Chapter I: A Description of the Island of Númenor
Page 164 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012 Kindle Edition)

I have not been able to find any earlier reference to wheels, but I think we can we can infer that they were invented earlier. The passage quoted from Unfinished Tales makes clear that the Númenóreans had little need for the wheel when they first moved to Númenor so they would have little incentive to invent it.

If the Númenóreans already knew about the wheel when they moved to Númenor, they must have acquired that knowledge in Middle-earth during the First Age. That suggests that the wheel was invented in the First Age. I can find no reference to wheels or wheeled transport in the First Age. So while I think the wheel was likely invented in the First Age, I can't say exactly when or who invented it (although my money would be on the dwarves).

As "the early centuries" is quite vague, I looked for a quote that gave a more more precise date. The best I could find is also in Unfinished Tales; it has a more precise date (between 873 and 892 of the Second Age), but refers to water wheels (presumably for water mills). In our world, the wheel was usually used for transport before water wheels were developed, and it seems reasonable to assume the same applied in Númenor.

All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, rivers to furnish water or to turn wheels, trees for boards ...

Unfinished Tales Part Two, Chapter II: Aldarion and Erendis
Page 199 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012 Kindle Edition)

The quote is from a letter to Ancalimë written by her mother some time before Ancalimë was named heir to the throne in 892 at the age of 19 (so between 873 and 892).

Conclusion

Water wheels were in use in Númenor by some time between 873 and 892 of the Second Age. The invention of the wheel was no later than "the early centuries of the Second Age", and probably some time in the First Age.

  • Heavy cargoes can be transported from port to port by sea, but unless "heavy cargo" only means "easily divisible quantities of grain" or something similar, there has to be some kind of land transport of (less) heavy cargo as well. The only thing that kept me from commenting that the wheel had to be invented by someone relatively early (even pre-First Age) is the fact that Mesoamerica civilizations appeared to function without significant use of wheeled vehicles. – chepner Aug 5 at 15:51
  • I agree @chepner and I assume the purpose of the road from Rómenna was to allow carts to distribute heavy goods that arrived by sea. We don't know what types of heavy cargo were transported, as you point out, it could have been easily divided items like grain. – Blackwood Aug 5 at 15:57
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    Related in my mind is the lack of any explicit references to things like agriculture. There must have been a need to transport large quantities of food non-trivial distances (what exactly were the inhabitants of Nargothrond eating, and who was bringing it to them?), which implies either carts or dragged sledges. But then there is also no mention of any kind of draft animal to do either kind of pulling. – chepner Aug 5 at 16:01
  • @chepner nobody cares how the Olympians or the Nibelung administrated their food supplies. Same for Tolkien's legendarium. – OrangeDog Aug 6 at 15:46
  • @OrangeDog Of course not, but no mention of agriculture doesn't mean there isn't any agriculture. "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." – chepner Aug 6 at 15:56

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