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The potter’s wheel changed the scale and speed of the production of ceramic vessels as early as 3000 BCE. It enabled potters to create a wider variety of vessels and was a preliminary step to industrialization.

Invention of the Pottery Wheel

Most of the earliest ceramic ware was made by hand using the coiling technique. The oldest forms of the potter’s wheel - tournettes or slow wheels - were likely developed as an extension of the original process. There is evidence that tournettes were used as early as 4500 BCE in the Near East. Scholars debate whether the first potter's wheel was invented by the ancient Sumerians, Europeans, Chinese, or Egyptians. These first devices were turned slowly by hand or foot. However, the number of items made suggests that they were used by a limited number of potters. Nonetheless, it had changed pottery production by increasing the efficiency of the hand-powered process.

The fast wheel was developed in the 3rd millennium BCE. This invention used energy stored in the rotating mass of the heavy stone wheel itself. Potters wound the wheel by kicking or pushing it with a stick, creating centrifugal force (a type of inertial force). The fast wheel led to the process of throwing pottery, where a piece of clay was squeezed and shaped while the wheel spun. The fast wheel increased the speed of production and allowed potters to make a larger variety of shapes and vessels, the markings on which are distinguishable from handmade pottery.

The turntable shaft was made longer and a flywheel was added around 3000 BCE in Egypt. The potter's wheel moves in a counterclockwise motion because potters started using their left hand to pull the edge while using their right to shape the clay. By the Iron Age, the most commonly used potter's wheel had a turning platform that stood about one meter off the floor and was connected to a flywheel with a long axle. In this configuration, the potter could make the wheel turn by kicking the flywheel so that both hands were free for shaping and molding the vessel. The ergonomics of this design made it awkward, as the potter had to sweep their foot side-to-side against the spinning piece.

While the date of the invention is not known, an alternative was created - a sort of crankshaft with a lever that converted the up-and-down motion into rotary motion. Today, the motor-driven potter's wheel is used most commonly, especially by craft potters and institutions. Still, in studios and some communities, human-powered wheels are used and sometimes even preferred.

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Examples of the Effects of the Potter’s Wheel

  • Increased the range and ornamentation of vessels that potters could create
  • Increased production speed and efficiency
  • Contributed to the process of industrialization
  • Improved the understanding and advancement of the ceramics/pottery industry
  • The development and alteration of the potter’s wheel over time led to the universal use of counterclockwise motion
Learn more about inventions and discoveries that have changed the world in our Picture Encyclopedia of Innovations!
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