Reinventing the Wheel

square wheel


To reinvent the wheel is to duplicate a basic method that has already previously been created or optimized by others. The inspiration for this idiomatic metaphor lies in the fact that the wheel is the archetype of human ingenuity, both by virtue of the added power and flexibility it affords its users, and also in the ancient origins which allow it to underlie much, if not all, of modern technology. As it has already been invented, and is not considered to have any operational flaws, an attempt to reinvent it would be pointless and add no value to the object, diverting the investigator’s resources from possibly more worthy goals which his skills could advance more substantially.

‘Reinventing the wheel’ may itself be an ironic cliche—-it is not clear when the wheel itself was actually invented. The modern ‘invention’ of the wheel might actually be a ‘re-invention’ of an age-old invention. Additionally, many different wheels featuring enhancements on existing wheels (such as the many types of available tires) are regularly developed and marketed. The metaphor emphasizes understanding existing solutions, but not necessarily settling for them.

The phrase is sometimes used without derision, when a person’s activities might be perceived as merely reinventing the wheel, when they actually possess additional value. For example, ‘reinventing the wheel’ is an important tool in the instruction of complex ideas. Rather than providing students simply with a list of known facts and techniques and expecting them to incorporate these ideas perfectly and rapidly, the instructor instead will build up the material anew, leaving the student to work out those key steps which embody the reasoning characteristic of the field.

Another example is in the field of patents where the phrase ‘to design around’ means to invent an alternative to a patented invention that does not infringe the patent’s claims. Design-arounds are considered to be one of the benefits of patent law. By providing monopoly rights to inventors in exchange for disclosing how to make and use their inventions, others are given both the information and incentive to invent competitive alternatives that design around the original patent. In the field of vaccines, for example, design-arounds are considered fairly easy. It is often possible to use the original patent as a guide for developing an alternative that does not infringe the original patent.

‘Reinventing the square wheel’ is an antipattern (a common practice that initially appears to be beneficial, but ultimately result in bad consequences) characterized by failing to adopt an existing solution and instead adopting a custom solution which performs much worse than the existing one. This often occurs when the engineer is unaware or contemptuous of the standard solution or does not understand the problem or the standard solution sufficiently to avoid problems overcome by the standard. It is mostly an affliction of inexperienced engineers, or the second-system effect (the tendency of small, elegant, and successful systems to have elephantine, feature-laden monstrosities as their successors due to inflated expectations).

Many problems contain subtleties which were resolved long ago in mainstream engineering (such as the importance of a wheel’s rim being smooth). Anyone starting from scratch, ignoring the prior art, will naturally face these problems afresh, and to produce a satisfactory result they will have to spend time developing solutions for them (most likely the same solutions). However, when reinventing the wheel is undertaken as a subtask of a bigger engineering project (rather than as a project in its own right to produce a better wheel) the engineer often does not anticipate spending much time on it. The result is that an underdeveloped, poorly performing version of the wheel is used, when using a standard wheel would have been quicker and easier, and would have given better results.

‘Preinventing the wheel’ involves delaying a task if it is expected to be undertaken later. An example would be, ‘We don’t want to preinvent the wheel’ when discussing a solution to a problem when it is known that the solution is being developed elsewhere. It is not necessarily pejorative. ‘Redefining the wheel’ is the practice of coming up with new and often abstruse ways of describing things when the existing way of describing them was perfectly adequate.

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