Author: Lynton Mack

“We’re just reinventing the wheel” gets a bad rap. It is used as a negative statement, but let me show you how positive it really is. 

How many times do we hear “don’t need to reinvent the wheel” from people who are certain that what they have right now is all that they need? That “we are wasting time, money and effort in making an unoriginal duplicate of something that is just fine, thanks”. 

“We’ve got our own databases on our servers, and they work fine. Why move this all to the cloud? It’s just reinventing the wheel…”  

So, how have we reinvented the wheel so far? 

A wheel is a flat circle with a hole in the middle. On its own, it really isn’t all that useful. It may be good for target practice, Aztec sports, or a paperweight. Combined with other technology, though, it transforms our world! Add axles, a hub, and a platform, and wheels become capable of moving loads easily. Put some lugs on, and a wheel becomes a cog for machinery.   

Wheels were used for wheel-thrown pottery well over 5,500 years ago. The design allowed for the creation of vessels quickly and consistently for capturing excess water. These potter’s wheels were stone, horizontal and super heavy but were entirely fit for purpose and used this way for thousands of years.  

It took another 300 years for someone to try and turn this wheel on its side, work out how a fixed wheel and axle would work and make it from solid slabs of wood to use for carrying loads — a wheelbarrow and simple carts.  

We then had to wait until we got to the Copper Age when new metal tooling allowed for more accurate, smaller and smoother holes and we get to a point in time where the wheel can now move around a fixed axle (with a bit of grinding and animal grease).  

Spoked wheels didn’t come in until around 2000 BC for use in chariots in Asia Minor. These made the wheels lighter than the solid wooden planks they used to be. 

This was followed by ringing them with iron (tyres) and improved iron hubs and axles for wagons and carriages. 

During the Middle Ages, the wheel was critical to exploiting our sources of energy – water, wind and animals. Waterwheels, windmills and wagons.  

We took the rotary motion of a waterwheel, replaced the buckets with metal lugs and invented the cogs in the wheels of industry. Hello, Industrial Age! 

Wire spokes in wheels were not designed for bicycles as we know them but for flight in 1808 by aeronautical engineer George Cayley. Bicycles took another 50 years to appear, only 2 or 3 years before the first car. Crazy stuff! 

Then we hit the 1800s, and Chuck Goodyear worked out how to vulcanise rubber to make it stable and strong and wrapped it around a wheel for a solid rubber tyre, 50 years before the first cars came into production. 

1887, and John Dunlop gave us the first practical pneumatic tyre that he invented for his son’s tricycle but it takes another 10 years to use them on an automobile. A further 10 years after that, before someone adds grooves to the tyres. 

If you’ve made it this far, you may have scrolled down the page with your mouse wheel…  

That’s my point. For thousands of years, the wheel has been continually reinvented, developed, adapted, and changed for new purposes. 

It is also, interestingly, a purely human-designed object as well. It was not found and copied from nature like other inventions but was pure human imagination and innovation. The wheel has aided us in every age of humankind in countless ways. 

Reinventing the wheel IS critically important for advancement.  

More often than not, the people who say that the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented are the people who keep the current wheels spinning—the technical teams who know their databases, servers, and processes inside and out.  

Rarely have I had to convince an Executive that they need to change and improve or get left behind, yet I often have to work hard to convince the teams that need to keep up with the wheels in motion (sic) that it really is worth their time and effort to do so. 

This response is completely understandable. It is along the lines of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

This is an emotional and not a critical-thinking response. The fear of change, exhaustion at having to learn even more, and grief at the loss of the work done (technical debt) that just can’t be moved.   

Change is hard, and it’s emotional. Here, we all love data and graphics, so have a chart that shows how change is adopted… 

Are you an Innovator or a Laggard? 

While you would think that the people who work with technology every day would want to be Early Adopters, typically, they just don’t want to be. It’s hard work for them, and it’s a loss of work done before and honed over the years. 

Is it really in their personal (or their organisation’s) interest to NOT reinvent the wheel? A new wheel could be just what you all need. If your skillset does not keep up with the rate of technology change in your industry (ANY Industry), then you risk stagnation and loss of income.  

I know this from personal experience. I had an employer who refused to stay up to date because “why reinvent the wheel?” When it came time to find a new job, I struggled because, despite decades of experience, I had zero years of experience with the latest versions. 

So, how can I convince you to jump on board and invest the time and effort into reinventing the wheel of your data estate? 

Simply, your wheel was built for Mongol Chariots, and you need to get ready to explore Mars now. Doing more, quicker, with less — not just “more” but “different” opens a whole raft of possibilities that we haven’t even thought of yet. 

The wheels of our data platforms are no longer fixed but multithreaded. My data vehicle doesn’t come with 4 wheels anymore; it comes with as many as I need, specifically when I need them. I can have 2, 4 or 4000 wheels and make them appear and disappear whenever I need to.   

I no longer work within the physical limitations of servers or hard drives.  

I mean, is that real? We can have as much storage as we need without crashing a server? Ever?  

What do you mean I can query petabytes of data with unmeasurable compute threads, bring them all back together, and not have to code it in any way? And when done, they just disappear. 

This really is the stuff of science fiction… It’s like they made a plastic engine that runs on water, man… 

And it is now.  

The wheels will keep being reinvented, and that’s a GOOD thing. 

We now have Cloud platforms as a service (PaaS), Fabric, and Snowflake (SaaS) offerings for fully featured data lakes—and this was before many even heard of a “data lake.”  

Is it scary? Yep.  

Is it a loss of work done before? Probably. 

Is it capable of things we haven’t even thought of? Abso-friggin-lutely…  

In a world of rapidly evolving tools, technologies and demands, the wheel is evolving faster than ever before.  

3D printed airless wheel, anybody?
AI-controlled wheels that adapt to conditions?
Space-saving foldable wheels or shape shifting wheels with electric hubs? 

 Just get on board, hurry up and reinvent the wheel. It’s a helluva ride! 



Nuts and Bolts – 99% Invisible ( 

A Salute to the Wheel | Science| Smithsonian Magazine 


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