SAVAGE man, clad only in the skin which he had taken from some animal, pushing at a rock too big for him to lift or tugging at a load too heavy for him to carry—that is our first picture of a man at work.

How small and helpless that first man seems as we think of him, standing in a wilderness, with no history behind him, no experience to guide him, but only his strong body and such wits as he possessed with which to conquer the world before him. Conquer it he must, for without food and shelter and warmth he would die. The world was full of treasures which could be turned to his comfort and convenience; but how was he to know it? There was no key to its treasures, no guide to his resources. The marvel is not that he was slow to find out some things, but how swift he was, in spite of untrained brain and hands, to master those things which would serve for his necessities.

That savage man standing before the load too heavy for him to move is our first picture, a man with only his limbs as tools. He could travel only as far and as fast as his legs could carry him. He could lift only so much as his arms could raise and carry; he could push only as hard as they could push. There lay the stone he wished to move, and he could not stir it.

Perhaps this ancient hunter picked up then a fallen branch and put one end of it under this big stone, and the stone stirred a little under his pressure. He was excited. He tried a shorter stick, and it did not work at all, a longer one, and it worked even better. If there happened to be a smaller stone lying next to the big one and he laid his long stick or log across it, he may have found that by putting his own weight on the end of the log, he could raise that stone without straining his muscles at all. If he did this, he had taken a big step up from the level of the wild animals that roamed the same forests, for he had found out a law. He had discovered the principle of the lever, by which a small weight or force applied at one point can be made to move a much greater weight at another point. He did not know it was a law. It was many hundreds of years later that the wonderful Greek inventor Archimedes, seeing the amazing possibilities of that law, put it into words and exclaimed, "Give me but a place to rest my lever upon and I could move the world!" It was a great moment when Archimedes found out and stated the law of the lever; but was it not a greater moment when our hunter, wanting to do something that was beyond his own strength, made all unknowingly a lever out of a log and moved his rock? He was the forerunner of the men who lifted the huge slabs of stone to build the Pyramids of Egypt and of the twentieth-century engineer who swings his steel frame to the top of a New York skyscraper. It was because he would not be downed by a task he could not accomplish that he found out a tool with which to do it.

Perhaps the load which our hunter wished to carry to his cave home was the carcass of a wild beast slain for meat. A pair of poles dragged along the ground helped him to carry it farther than he could have supported it on his shoulders. But a long, rough tree trunk dragged over the uneven ground rubbed along its whole length for every inch of the way, making the journey heavy going for the weary hunter. Some day the stick happened to be a smooth, rounded branch, set crosswise across the path, and it rolled easily where the flat stick had been hard to drag. Back in the dim ages, of which we can only guess their story, there was hewed out a solid chunk of wood, round, cut from the end of a log. Some man, brighter than his fellows, after rolling loads along on tree trunks until his back was well-nigh broken, hewed out two of these round slabs, stuck a piece of wood through the center of each, and lifted his load off the ground so that it should no longer drag and rub. Those were the first wheels set with an axle; that was the first cart.

Again man had found out how to get around a natural law, the law of friction. Friction is simply a mechanical term for the rubbing of one surface upon another. Friction is useful to man in many ways. We should all slip and slide as we do without skates on ice if it were not for friction. But that prehistoric man was putting his strength against that rubbing. The power which came from his own muscles was set against that endless rubbing of the load on the ground. When he lifted the load off the ground, he gained much. A sled on runners goes more easily and swiftly than a piece of board dragged on the ground. But when he put a curving wheel under the load and made that wheel turn on an axle, he had doubled the gain. He had added the power of a wheel working on the principle of a lever to take the weight of the load, to the advantage of lifting his clumsy load off the ground so that one flat surface should not drag over another flat surface.

It is one thing to learn these laws as part of a lesson from a physics book; it was quite another for the early man to find out one by one, with many failures but a few successes, devices by which he could make a little easier the back-breaking labor which was exhausting his strength. We honor the men who had the wisdom and under standing to think out and state the great laws on which the universe is built. Let us not forget to honor that hard-working pioneer inventor who had the wit to make and to use a wheel.


"The flood is coming, the flood is coming. Father Nile is rising," the children in old Egypt used to cry, and all the people would drop their work and rush out to see the giant river begin to stir and lift itself between its banks.

For ten long months the land had been drying up under the parching heat of a southern sun. Now it was summer and the river god who had never failed them in all the years would rise from his quiet, even habit of flowing in his river bed and would sweep out over the land, flooding wide reaches of country with his healing, life-giving water. For fifty days he would bless them with his gifts, and when he went back to his peaceful rest between the banks which he had built for himself, the land would be covered with a rich, thick, black mud from which would spring fruits and flowers and grains, with which the people could comfort themselves until in another year he should bring to them again his precious gift of water.

To us who have our spring and summer and autumn rains and our winter snows, living as we do in a land where water is a familiar and constant blessing, a flood is a break in Nature’s routine and a calamity to mankind. Because we do not expect or need its sudden supply of water, it brings only distress and loss, sweeping away the homes built in its path and destroying crops. But Father Nile was no such unwelcome visitor in the parched land of Egypt. Without his forty-foot rise each year the country would have been a desert like the Sahara. No wonder they worshipped him and pictured him as a friendly and genial god, crowned with fruits and green leaves, with elves or sprites playing happily over his huge form.

The people of the parched land of Egypt worshipped him as a friendly and genial god.

But while the sweep of his arm was broad, it did not cover the whole land. And while his stay was blessed as long as it lasted, there were ten months when he slept tranquilly in his narrow bed. Where Father Nile’s work stopped, man’s work began, and hard work it was.

This precious water which came for so short a time must be stored. So slaves were set to building earthworks which should hold it as in a pond or lake, so that it would not all run away into the sand. It must be carried to the homes and gardens and farms which lay beyond the flooded region. So slaves were put to carrying it in jars on their heads. Human labor was cheap in those days. The kings and nobles of Egypt had hundreds upon hundreds of men and women whom they thought of as mere chattels, human machines which existed Only to work endlessly in their masters’ service. Old Egyptian carvings in stone have rows upon rows of slaves carrying water pots on their heads.

But even slaves and slave drivers are men, with the wits of human beings, not mere animals to toil endlessly at a task without hope or thought of change. Some genius who had to lift water day after day from the low level of a ditch to the higher level of the fields hung his bucket on the end of a pole and put his weight on the other end of the pole. The lever was in use again, you see. The bucket swung easily up into the air, and its load was tipped over into the channel where the man wanted it to flow. The whole land of Egypt along the banks of the Nile was interlaced with an intricate system of canals and pipe lines and well sweeps (poles with buckets), set singly or in pairs, to lift water from one level to another. But still all the lifting had to be done by men; all the push, wherever it was applied, came from their muscles.

Then some slave, brighter or maybe less strong and therefore thought by his master to be lazier than his fellows, watched in his moments off duty an Egyptian chariot driving swiftly by on its smooth-turning wheels. He took a wheel which had fallen off an old cart, and set it in place of the pole on a well sweep. The buckets came up even more swiftly, and the labor was less. A man pushes back and forth, back and forth, with a stop between each two strokes and a loss of power with each start and stop. But the gain of a wheel is that it turns round and round without stop or start. Here another chapter was added to the romance of the wheel, for its swift, smooth motion was set not simply to carry men and loads over the ground, as it had done in the cart or chariot, but to do work in lifting weights. Still the wheel had to be turned by man’s own hand or by an animal which he might put in as substitute. As a matter of fact, it was done in Egypt chiefly by man’s own muscle, for men were plenty and human labor was cheap. Machines of a self-working kind might have come many years earlier in the ancient world if it had not been for this disregard by the upper classes of the heavy labor which slaves performed for them. Of what use to try to think up ways to save labor when every man had slaves who could do all the work as well as not?

It was many hundreds of years before the next big happening came. That was when a man who had real inventive power, a man who stood head and shoulders above his neighbors in brain and skill, watched the swift current of a stream as it swept everything along with it, and set a wheel in it to let the water turn the wheel. Then he widened the spokes of his wheel into paddles, like the oars of his boat, so that they should catch the pressure of the water. When man first let the natural weight or pressure of running water turn a wheel for him, and then fastened that same wheel by its axle to the device by which he was lifting water in buckets, he had won a victory which might well be heralded down the ages. He had made a machine which would go of itself. He had graduated for the moment from the use of tools for which he must supply the motive power and even of machines like the lever in which he must supply part of the force while depending on the laws of mechanics to do the rest. In the water wheel he had made a machine in which water itself did the work of lifting water, while he stood by and watched it done.

At that moment the age of self-working machinery began. In that moment man lifted himself from a toiler depending for his results on his own or his animals’ labor. For human or animal work he substituted the work of a natural element, falling water. The glorious day in which man was to be delivered from the slavery of toil had begun. He had gone a long way along the road to directing a task with his brains instead of tugging at it with his muscles.

When man first let water turn a wheel for him the age of self-working machinery began.


Five hundred and more years ago there dwelt in the little village of Alkmaar, away up in northern Holland, a man by the name of Florent Alkmade. He was a prosperous citizen of the town, a blacksmith, and a well-to-do farmer who owned much land.

Farming was not easy in the Netherlands in those days. Indeed, life there has never been easy since the days when the Saxon and Frisian barbarians came down from the north and looked on the shifting, water-swept marshes and, giving to them the name of "Netherlands" or "Lowlands," set themselves to make of them a country of homes. Perhaps it has been the battle which they have always had to wage against wind and water which has given to the people of the little country a force and determination which have shown themselves in all their history. Only a brave and persistent people would have taken a land of shifting sands, where overflowing rivers and inrushing currents of the sea dispute for possession, and carved out of it a rich and fertile farming land.

Everyone knows the story of the dikes of Holland, those high earthworks and barriers of stone with which the sea is kept back from overflowing a land which is in many sections set below sea level. The Cimbrians and Frisians built dikes even while they camped on the hillocks which overtopped the waters, and later generations had added to them till in the days of Florent Alkmade the rivers and the sea were under some control and one might dwell with reasonable safety and comfort back of the circle of reinforced sand dunes which encircled the coast.

But while the sea was shut out, the rivers still overflowed their banks and formed a long line of perpetual marshes. Where there should have been stretches of green, fertile fields, producing crops, there were acres upon acres of boggy marsh. As Egypt in the days of the Pharaohs had suffered from lack of water, so Holland in its early history as well-nigh swamped with water.

Florent Alkmade was a wealthy burgher. He did not stay always in his own little village, but journeyed on business, not only to the cities of Holland, but toParis and southward into the rich farming regions that stretched across middle Europe. He saw the prosperity of those lands, and thought of his own marshy acres which would be rich and fertile, too, if he could only drain off the excess of water which stood there.

In Paris he heard from a traveler who had been in Bohemia of a new device which a man had invented there by which a wheel was set up in the air and made to turn by the blowing of the wind, so that it could by its revolutions be used to pump up water from a well. Now Alkmade was a practical mechanic. He knew how a pump could be made to drag up water out of the ground. He used crude pumps on his own place, but they worked hard and pulled up little water. Against the sweeping of water into the marshes as it came from the rivers, the work of a hand-pushed pump would be like child’s play. Holland in the fifteenth century had no army of slaves to be stationed all over its wide marshes in order to work night and day against the rise of its waters.

Where another man would have scoffed at the idea of using the wind, Alkmade was a Hollander with a Dutchman’s familiarity with boats and water. Since he was a little boy he had run up a cloth sail in his boat and tacked back and forth on the wind-swept inland lagoons. A sailor himself, he knew well the power of wind. But for wind to turn a wheel and the wheel to run a pump—that was a new idea. A less clever man would have thought it a crazy idea. A man with a smaller problem would have thought it easier to keep on pumping with the old hand labor or with an animal circling round and round in a treadmill turning a wheel to keep the pump working. But no man or animal could ever drain his broad acres. Yet if they were drained, he believed they could be made every bit as fertile as the carefully nurtured fields of France.

When Alkmade came home from Paris, he said nothing about this new machine of which he had heard. He knew his sober, unimaginative neighbors too well to think that they would do anything but scoff at the idea of wind pumping water. But he set to work to make a toy wheel with sails on it. At least he could try out that idea for himself.

It took some time to get the sails at the right angles; but at last he got a little wheel which spun around in the wind as if it had learned the secret of perpetual motion. He called in some of his neighbors to see it. They admired his skill in making the toy but laughed at the crazy idea of a machine on that plan doing real work.

"It all goes to show," they said, "what travel does for a man. Here Florent was a good farmer and an industrious, hard-working blacksmith before he went journeying off to the city. Now he thinks he knows more than his fathers did before him, and he is wasting his time playing with wind toys. Fancy harnessing the wind to run a pump! Who ever heard of such a thing?"

But in spite of the fact that no one in Holland had ever heard of such a thing, Florent Alkmade kept at work on his wind wheel. After he had worked out the idea with his model, he built a larger wheel in which four sails took the place of spokes, and set it on an axis so that the wind would strike the sails and keep the wheel turning. If he could get a wheel that revolved in the wind, it would be a fairly simple matter to connect it by smaller wheels with his pump and let the motion of the wheel keep the pump going.

At last he set up his big wheel. It would go only if the wind blew on it from one quarter. So he set it, as all the windmills in Holland were to be set for many, many years, for the prevailing northwest wind. When it worked, and the first water had been drawn from the pump by its turning, he called in his neighbors again and set it going.

A Dutchman may be slow in his ways and hard to convince, but when he sees a good thing he knows enough to appreciate it. Those stolid Dutch farmers had spent all their lives battling against two elements: water and wind. As fast as they built up dikes of sand to keep back the waters, the winds sweeping down from the northwest lifted the tops off the dunes and let the waters rush in again. When they saw their two ancient foes put against each other, the wind in its sweep harnessed to draw the water from the ground, they laughed at the humor of the thing and slapped their neighbor Florent on the back for his cleverness in planning it.

Before Florent died, not only did he have windmills set up all over his own lands, keeping the marshes drained so that they became in their season fertile for crops; but his neighbors had copied his mills. Their sails, too, were revolving in the breeze, and people were coming from all over Holland to see the sight. Alkmade set up his first successful windmill in 1408. Before the year 1500 Holland was dotted with the windmills which for four hundred years have made her country famous for its picturesqueness. The swamp lands were being turned into fertile farms; the people were prospering. Man had won another victory in that he had set two forces of Nature against one another in his machines. With wind working for them in their battle with the waters, the men of Holland had gained a sure ally in their conquest of Nature.

The next step came when man began his second conquest of fire, and used it for power, putting steam to work in turning his wheels and doing his work for him. That was not to happen for another two hundred years. With the story of fuel turned to power to drive his machines, the romance of the wheel will be complete.


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© 2001, by Lynn Waterman