Re-Inventing The Wheel (For Real)

from the sometimes-it's-good dept

The phrase “re-inventing the wheel” is often used to suggest something negative — as in wasted effort. But, perhaps re-inventing the wheel can be useful in certain ways. TechnoMage points us to this story of a grad student at Bradley University, Curtis Boirum, coming up with a neat hemispherical omnidirectional gimbaled wheel (or HOG wheel). A what, you ask? Well, check out the video below to get a pretty good idea of how it works and what it does:

As you can see, it’s basically a rubber hemisphere that spins and tilts, and you can do some useful things with it, especially when it comes to fast maneuvers at high speeds. You could definitely see that being useful. Where this gets really interesting is that it’s not just “reinventing the wheel” as in the normal wheel, but, in this case, it’s reinventing this HOG wheel, too. While some reports are calling this “novel,” Boirum discovered, after he’d already invented this himself, that others had done so decades ago… but nothing much had come from it. There’s even a 1938 issue of Mechanics and Handicraft Magazine that featured a really similar device on its cover:

This whole story struck me as interesting in a number of ways. First, just the very idea of reinventing the way a wheel/drive system works compared to the conventional method is pretty cool. But it strikes me as even more interesting to see that Boirum basically reinvented this very system, entirely independently, even though it had already been invented before. We’ve talked in the past about the importance of independent invention, and this seems like yet another case of it.

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Comments on “Re-Inventing The Wheel (For Real)”

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Hulser (profile) says:

Mr Skin

There’s got to be a proper name for this, but I call this The Mr Skin Effect after the scene in Knocked Up where the lead character finds out there’s already a web site just like the one him and his buddies have been working on for months. I have this mental image of Boirum seeing that magazine cover from 1938 and having the crushing realization that he was not the first person to “invent” that wheel.

Anonymous Coward says:

What is key here Mike is that even if the idea was patent in 1938, it’s long out of patent now. Nothing gets in the way of development or implementation. There is no chilling effects here, no blockages, no obstructions, nothing.

Taking a similar development makes 70+ years apart without any related “market forces” driving them and trying to apply it in a competitive market is sort of misleading. It’s okay, I understand what you are trying to do, but it’s just funny to watch you work so hard to get to it.

out_of_the_blue says:

Totally impractical. Too bulky and complex.

Appeals only to the “Star Trek” generation who’ve no practical experience and no idea of the MANY impractical inventions that just can’t be made to work reliably. Fairly frequently, these are “re-invented”, but the very “re-invention” simply means that they never went into production, or everyone would be familiar with them. This too will never see production. You read it here first.

CommonSense (profile) says:


I didn’t see any mention of patents or chilling effects or any of that until your comment….so basically, YOU are the one who brought it up, just so you could argue with yourself that it makes no sense to even mention it?? Classic cowards.

You say you see what Mike is trying to do, but you really don’t. You’re trying to see what you want to see. The only thing Mike is doing with this article, is drawing attention to this cool new thing that interests him, and point out that even though it was done before, the creator of this particular project had no previous knowledge of the other projects. It’s a clear example of independent invention, and that is all. Time between inventions matter as much as the distance between inventors, which should be not at all.

Old Fool (profile) says:

World not ready for it.

You can see why it never took off, the sphere is made of metal and in 1938 many ‘roads’ were little more than tracks and most European streets were cobbled.

Modern highways and cushioned high-traction coatings should make it possible to create fun, if not practical vehicles.

C’mon you engineers it’s patent free now – get building!

freak (profile) says:

Totally impractical. Too bulky and complex.

. . . bulky and complex? One of the things about this was that it is much less complex than a normal engine, accomplishing steering and transmission with only 4 moving parts.

It also has no microprocessor other than radio transmission, so doubtlessly it could be much improved again with more precise and intelligent control over the HOG wheel.

I wonder what will happen this time though, I’m not confident that it won’t disappear again.

Anonymous Coward says:


Because you might miss it:

“I got his point. But you missed the less than subtle reference to independant invention, which Mike pretty much uses as a way to say that patents suck. The reason the story is on techdirt isn’t because the invention is cool, it’s because it supports one of Mike’s main thrusts against patents.”

IshmaelDS (profile) says:


Because you DID miss it.
from CommonSense’s post above yours
” to this cool new thing that interests him, and point out that even though it was done before, the creator of this particular project had no previous knowledge of the other projects. It’s a clear example of independent invention, and that is all. Time between inventions matter as much as the distance between inventors, which should be not at all.”

No one missed where he said it had already been invented before, all Mike is saying is that they did it both independently.

CommonSense (profile) says:


Oh ok, so you didn’t even bother to read my comment….typical Coward…

In my comment, I address the independent invention comment, and what I believe Mike was trying to convey with it. Do you have anything of value to add to the conversation, or are you just going to copy/paste your one and only, proven foolish, argument over and over again??? Either way is fine, I’d just like to know that I can ignore you if you’re just being a fool for the sake of being a fool.

out_of_the_blue says:

Totally impractical. Too bulky and complex.

If it has two degrees of freedom, it’s more than 4 moving parts.

But I mean GENERAL applicability, not this TOY that can work only on smooth surfaces. To put the scheme on even a good ROAD surface, and SPRUNG so isn’t broken first time out, the complexity goes up by about an order of magnitude OVER conventional means, just mechanically, never mind the computer control required. At the very least, the gimbals have to be capable of resisting the full /impulse/ shock load that the motor is capable of, making it very heavy.

I’m confident that current mechanisms will be used forever, and that this will never be more than a toy.

Alien Bard says:


We all understand that innovation and invention will happen no matter what, but your point makes no sense here.

And since you insist on dragging IP laws into it:
The student was lucky – Not only did he claim the idea was his own, he even created a working model without permission. Imagine the law suits he would have been immersed in if this idea had been under copyright… and a mere 70 years wouldn’t be nearly enough to clear it anymore. It’s simply a fortunate coincidence that patent laws aren’t as bad. Yet. If the original invention had been a mere 20 years ago the outcome could be a whole lot different.

The sad thing is that according to maximalist reasoning the family of the original inventor should be able to sue for theft of the idea, even after all this time. The fact that it was arrived at independently has no bearing on their ‘right’ to financial compensation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Totally impractical. Too bulky and complex.

Re-invention means simply that for *some* reason, *any* reason the person or the technology of the day wasn’t up to actually making something viable – it says nothing of the underlying invention ‘quality’.

“This too will never see production.”
Yeah those damned copycat makers of flying machines…DaVinci invented them centuries earlier but they never caught on so we should all stop flying now since it can’t possibly be valid 😉

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

World not ready for it.

Seems a simple task to make the outside layer out of rubber with a layer of air between it and the metal like current tires. Or, since most roads are now smooth and solid, we can go the way current tire technology is going and make the entire thing out of rubber.

As for it’s uses, I can see uses. Anyone else look at this and think I Robot (the movie)? True two dimensional driving, not just a curvy line. Though, I could imagine it would be a bitch if each tire required an independent motor.

Havoc (profile) says:

Mr Skin

That’s the part that got me. For my few little patents, there have been numerous ideas, but before anything got past the drawing stage a deep patent search was done. Some things were killed at that point, others went back on the drawing board for review and/or improvement. Many of those were before patent searches became as easy as they are now, but it’s simply the practical side of development.

Robin Smith (profile) says:

While I see some fun applications for this (bumper cars, lawn mowers, office/industrial bots), the story also gives me hope for our future knowing that young men and women around the globe are exercising their imaginations, skills and abilities to do new, cool things. And, for those that didn’t notice in the video, Curtis Boirum has already gone well beyond the original (1938) concept.

Havoc (profile) says:

Totally impractical. Too bulky and complex.

Don’t forget though, that many inventions from 20 or 100 years ago were impractical due to technology and/or need. Materials or the ability to mass produce some items decades ago made them impossible, or they died simply because there was no perceived need or market. Both of those conditions may change over time; my favourite example being Peltier junctions (from the 1860s) that serve as common beer coolers and submarine A/C now along with numerous other products. Technology and need had to catch up.

Marcel Popescu (profile) says:

Patents are required for innovation?

What I find very interesting is that:

1) he invented this not because he was going to get a patent, but because he found the idea interesting. (I’m not saying that he wasn’t hoping to get a patent – maybe he was – but getting a patent was not a requirement for invention, it was at most a nice-to-have bonus.)

2) Even after discovering that he can’t patent the invention, he still advertises it. He didn’t hide it or tried to patent it in some other country.

All this basically means that those who claims patents are necessary or we won’t have new inventions anymore are full of it.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Totally impractical. Too bulky and complex.

I’m confident that current mechanisms will be used forever, and that this will never be more than a toy.

Uhm…this has precedence.

In Greece and Rome, circa 400BC and ~100AD, there were simple toys called “Steam Engines.” You may have heard of them. Old dudes like Hero of Alexandria explained how they used boiling water in a turbine to move objects as part of plays and for religious ceremonies.

Those of course disappeared into history as just a fad…they never had general applicability to anyone in our modern society.

The simple truth is that 80 years ago, there was no general applicability, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t now.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

it's long out of patent now.

Funny you should mention that. You?re basically admitting that the patent was an impediment to the development of the original idea.

We?ve seen this sort of situation happen over and over, with a seemingly-coincidental 20-year-or-longer lag between the original publication of an idea and its actual implementation in working products: motor-car development didn?t really take off until after the Otto cycle patent had expired; the transistor was invented in 1948, but it wasn?t until the 1960s that transistor radios became popular; and so on and so on.

Bruce says:

Nothing new under the sun

From the words of a man or woman from over 2000 years ago

“What has been is what will be,
and what has done is what will be done;
and There Is Nothing New Under The Sun”

This is from a time when various “scientists” and “engineers” of that age had worked out sizes of the earth, moon and sun and distances between them, chemical warfare, steam engines, massive civil engineering works, etc.

This is from a time when various “security forces” and “governments” were ensuring that terrorism didn’t destroy their way of life.

Oh how things change, oh things stay the same.

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