Without the wheel, most of the world's work would stop. Automobiles, trains, buses, farm machines, trucks and nearly all industrial equipment would be useless or wouldn't exist at all. Could you imagine a world like that? I don’t think most people stop to think about how important the wheel is to our modern existence or, even more importantly, to our modern fun. Imagine a world without bicycles, skateboards, in-line skates or monster trucks.
When I was asked to write an article on the history of the in-line skate wheel, I realized that its history was simply a recent chapter in the history of the wheel itself. It was obvious I needed to do research, so being the hardcore journalist that I am, I asked all my friends if they knew where the wheel came from. Their answers ranged from, "10,000,000 BC" to "Kryptonics!"
The truth is, no living person knows when the wheel was invented or who invented it. The best guess is that it happened in Asia about 10,000 years ago. The oldest known wheel was discovered in Mesopotamia and is believed to date back 55 centuries. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go look it up. It was apparently the result of long development after some genius caveman cracked his head open from stepping on a rock that rolled out from under his feet. It was later discovered that a heavy load could be moved rather easily if a roller was placed under it.
The next big step was the change of the roller into a wheel. The wood between the grooves of the roller was cut away to make an axle, and wooden pegs were driven into the runners on each side of the axle, like in the "Flintstones." I don’t want to burst your bubble about "Land of the Lost" or the "Flintstones," but this time period didn't have wheels with axles. In fact, people didn’t live at the same time as dinosaurs, but that’s a different story all together.
Since the development wheel and axle, the two have been essentially the same. Except for technological and material improvements, we still use the same basic system. Being inventive animals as well as eternal pleasure seekers, people eventually figured that it might be fun to have wheels directly attached to their feet. Nordic ice skaters with a summer skating jones developed the first roller skates. Roller-skating became a pastime in the Netherlands and Belgium in the mid- 1700s. Some early skates had only two wheels and these were technically the first in-line skates because the wheels were configured one in front of the other. That sounds reminiscent of something modern called anti-rocker, proving that it is truly an archaic system. Others had several wheels in a line. In 1863, James Plimpton of Medford, Mass., developed the first practical skate. His arrangement of four rollers set in pairs caught on and roller-skating became the latest and greatest craze. Skates first used wooden wheels, then steel. In the 1890s, the first all- steel skate was introduced. The turn of the century brought the ball-bearing roller which allowed for the development of the modern skate. Rubber-wheeled skates were introduced in the 1920s, but most rollers still used the noisy metal models because the rubber was hard and slippery. That’s the way it stayed until the late 1950s. Now is when the story gets confusing. Like with most inventions, more than one person takes credit for the invention of the urethane wheel. Dupont, the chemical manufacturing giant, came up with this "space age" material called adiprene. In 1963, Tom Hitefield, while playing with some adiprene that his father Vernon was developing, asked his dad if he could make a wheel out of it for his roller skates. After some reformulating in his basement lab, he created polyurethane. Vernon designed a cast-molding system that made the originally soft urethane harder and faster, as well as capable of holding loose ball bearings. All this contributed to the primal need for speed.
Vernon named his company, appropriately, Creative Urethanes. Then came surfer/skateboarder Frank Nasworthy, who thought the polyurethane roller-skating wheels would solve skateboarding’s traction and control problems. They did, and he took the new wheels to San Diego in 1971 and started selling them to surf/skate shops. He was selling 8000 wheels a year by 1973. In 1973, Frank went out on his own and started Cadillac Wheels in an effort to meet the specific demands of skateboarding. By 1975, he had licensed his designs to Bahne, a surf and skateboard company, which took sales to the one million per year mark. This refinement of the original polyurethane formula was essentially the same compound we know of as skate wheel urethane today.
One would think this is where our story ends. We're not that lucky. As with many innovations, there are many people who came across the same thing about the same time. This is also the case with the development of polyurethane and its skating application. Tom and Vernon Hitefield were the first story - now for the second. This one will probably be more familiar to you since it involves one of the more known wheel brands in in-line skating.
In 1965, Chuck Demarest started Kryptonics. The name is derived from the Greek word "kryptos", meaning concealed or secret. During his work in nuclear physics at the University of Colorado, Demarest became a polyurethane technologist. Demarest was fascinated by polyurethane's amazing strength and ease of production. During the 1970's skateboarding boom, Demarest decided to apply Kryptonics' technology to the design and production of skateboard wheels. He developed a formula for softer, grippier urethane wheels. It was a much needed improvement. They were known as "Kryptos" to young skateboarders throughout America. Kryptonics wheels performed so much better than the wheels of the past that the company established itself by producing an entire line of wheels, some of which it still manufactures, to fit the range of skateboarding needs.
By the 1980s, Kryptonics was the world's leading manufacturer of high performance skate and skateboard wheels. Those early developments in urethane wheels by Kryptonics and Creative Urethanes were instrumental in the progression of skateboarding’s tricks, as well the sport as a whole.
So where does in-line skating come in? In the early '80s the Olson brothers, the original owners of Rollerblade, Inc., approached Kryptonics to develop wheels for a new "in-line" skate they were developing. They wanted a longer-wearing wheel than current skateboard wheels. The shape of the wheel also required the urethane formula to withstand lots of pressure. It was designed with a long, thin profile to simulate an ice skate blade.
Through this partnership with Rollerblade, Kryptonics went on to create the original in-line skate wheel. The successful design of the first in-line skate wheel meant that people took to the sport easier. It can confidently be said that that first wheel is mostly responsible for the amount of success in-line skating has had in such a short period of time. Thus, a new era was ushered in where polyurethane wheels come in all shapes, sizes and formulas, specific to the many different types of skating.
Urethane is some pretty amazing stuff. God bless urethane! One guy did it first , and the other guy made it better and sold more. You decide who was the first to do what. I personally don’t care. I’m just glad that they did what they did so I can choose what I’ll roll on depending on the type of rolling I’m doing.
While writing this article I wondered, "What's going to be the next revolution in wheel design or will urethane just keep going until we develop a skate that doesn’t use wheels?" I don’t know if that will be in our life time, but never say never. If you do figure it out, call me so we can patent it before Dupont does.
History of the Wheel
by Eric Londers
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