The History of Pottery Wheels

By Tracy Morris ; Updated September 15, 2017

Pottery is an ancient art. The oldest known pots date back to Japan approximately 10,000 B.C. The concept of clay-made vessels sprung up in cultures when a society transitioned from a nomadic lifestyle to an agrarian one. This is largely due to pottery being a more stable, heavier container. The pottery wheel was eventually invented to help shape pots quickly and efficiently.

Pottery Prior To The Wheel

Before the invention of the wheel, pots were shaped by coiling clay and then turning it repeatedly by hand. The disadvantage of this method is that a single vessel could take quite awhile to create. As societies grew and traded with one another, the increased demand for clay vessels also grew. The old method for making pots gradually became insufficient for keeping up with the demand.

Speeding Up Coiling

In response to the increased demand for pots, a number of methods were developed to speed up the coiling process. Some potters used a platter that could be easily turned as a surface for coiling pots. Others refined their techniques of standing and moving while working to maximize their efficiency.

The Invention Of The Wheel

The wheel was invented in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) around 3,000 B.C. Within a short time, the Sumerians adapted the wheel concept to a faster method of turning and shaping pottery. These first turntables were slow, but they were a vast improvement over the previous methods of shaping pots.

An Industry Is Born

In the early Mesopotamian villages, specialization occurred to a small degree. While some people worked exclusively on pots, the process was by no means an industry. This changed by the time of the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics on tomb walls record the first attempts at a large-scale effort to making pottery, including the invention of smooth-turning tables that eased the shaping of clay vessels.

A Better Wheel

As potters' wheels became faster and smoother, potters' abilities to make more complex and beautiful pottery also grew. Some of the advances in technology are evident in potters' abilities to make clay vessels with stems, smooth spirals and true circles.

Throwing Pottery

In the 19th century the concept of throwing pottery as we know it today flourished due to potter's wheels that could achieve higher spinning speeds. This is partially due to the French development of the momentum wheel, a wheel that took advantage of low friction and high weight to achieve maximum speeds.

Today

Although modern wheels are available that use electricity to vary wheel speeds and give users greater control over the shaping of their pottery, many potters still prefer to use the quieter momentum wheels. Eastern methods of creating pottery use a very different style wheel, in which the flywheel is the actual surface that the pot is shaped on. Potters who use the Eastern-style wheels sit at ground level and often have an assistant to keep the wheel's momentum going.

About the Author

Tracy Morris has been a freelance writer since 2000. She has published novels and numerous online articles. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers including "Ferrets," "CatFancy," "Lexington Herald Leader" and "The Tulsa World." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Arkansas.