History of Potters Wheels

Potters wheels were invented in the Middle East about 4000 B.C.E. The villages at that time were expanding into towns and cities, and a new phase in human development was underway. Ancient Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq, was the first urban civilization and a sophisticated commercial trading culture was rising. New occupations and crafts necessitating new tools and skills evolved in response to the increasing demand for commerce. This in turn led to increasing specialization. Where heretofore pottery making had been largely a female craft – part of a woman’s tasks such as sewing, basket-making, and weaving – the increasingly complex commercial environment led to a shift to men as the specialists in these occupations. Moreover, the need to produce commercial ceramic ware in quantity as quickly and uniformly as possible led to the introduction of new techniques.

In prehistoric times pottery was made by the coiling technique, in which coils of self-hardening clays were layered in cylindrical form and the successive layers were squeezed and smoothed to shape a thin, uniform wall. In order to accomplish this it is necessary to slowly revolve the piece as the work progresses. Usually this was done by placing the piece on a plate and twisting it around as the work progressed. In primitive tribes this coiling technique is still being used to this day. It was in what is now southern Iraq that the wheel was invented by the Sumerian people to make carts and chariots in place of the ancient sledges which had been used for transportation before this time. The wheel principal was soon applied horizontally to the problem of turning pottery around as it was being shaped. Using turntables allowed potters to make pots much more quickly and easily. By 3000 B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, pottery was being made on turntables by two men working together: a potter who shaped the piece using both hands and an assistant who kept the wheel turning. It was only with the arrival of the potters wheel that more complex forms, such as tapering and the addition of stems to cups and bowls, was employed.

Although the use of wheels enabled potters to work much more quickly, the technique of wheel throwing developed more slowly. For centuries wheels were used to speed up the coiling process rather than to center and form lumps of clay into final shape directly. By the sixteenth century in Europe momentum wheels were used which employed flywheel energy to keep a heavy stone wheel, connected to the working platform with a metal axel, turning constantly by kicking. In the Far East, the flywheel was often the working platform itself and the potter was seated on the floor to kick the wheel. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, by the nineteenth century, motors were developed to supply the energy needed to revolve the flywheel. In the twentieth century electrical motors came to replace the older internal combustion engine driven wheels. The present twenty-first century has seen the invention of computerized potters wheels.