The first Rotary club was founded in Chicago by Paul Harris and 3 business colleagues in 1905. It was called Rotary because initially, meetings were held at member business premises in rotation.
Paul invoked the idea of a simple wagon wheel to illustrate ‘Civilisation and Movement’. Because wheels rotate, the then familiar wagon wheel seemed a natural choice for a group calling itself Rotary. The automobile was still very much in its infancy in 1905.
Later that same year Montague Bear a new member and engraver, was inspired to create a wheel with 13 spokes as an insignia for Rotary
Bear updated the design to represent the wheel ‘riding on a bed of clouds’ to show dust and motion and the appearance of action. A banner ribbon was added and by 1910 the National Association of Clubs had sixteen members, each had their own insignia design loosely based on Bear’s wagon wheel motif. As more members joined the Association these insignia's generated a great diversity with local history or landmarks being included into the designs, and even mutating into stars, a ship’s helm, globes and other circular shapes.
Enough! Cried the National Association who in 1912 held a competition to establish a single official Rotary emblem and the wheel design from Rotary in Philadelphia was adopted:
“….. a wheel with 19 gears (teeth) cut on the outer edge to relieve the plainness of design and symbolize power of members working together, literally members interlocking with one another to achieve the organisation’s objective, and spokes to indicate strength"
Fun Fact: Nineteen teeth were chosen because Philadelphia was chartered as the 19th member to join the Rotary community.
Notwithstanding, Rotary continued to evolve new designs and some sources claim 57 versions of the wheel featuring more, fewer or no teeth or spokes, were in use by 1920, many of them “impossible, not mechanically sound, and with no practical application”.
So in 1920, Charles Mackintosh and Oscar Bjorge in Chicago and Duluth, co-authored an article for The Rotarian Magazine entitled "Redesigning the Rotary Wheel”. Their re-engineered emblem featured a “a wheel re-proportioned and of more sturdy appearance with six spokes ..." (symbolizing the 6 Objects of Rotary at that time), "... and 24 cogs or teeth”.
Rotarian Will Forker from Los Angeles then observed the design “would be an idler gear and useless because there is no means to transfer the power of the wheel to a central shaft. "My idea of Rotary” he said, “is not that it is an idler organisation, but rather that it is a real living force.”
“Rotary is a vast machine and the gearwheel is a hardworking gear, truly emblematic of the Rotary community working together for the service of mankind.”
The central key-way was added and the specification for a “re-engineered, mechanically correct Rotary wheel with official colours of royal blue and gold” were approved by the Dalas Convention in 1929.
The Rotary Wheel emblem is a registered trademark protected throughout the world by Rotary International. The Rotary Wheel not only distinguishes Rotary in the community, but also helps Rotarians identify each other, and has become one of the most familiar symbols in the world today.
In 2013 the wheel was updated to a more modern appearance and is the Rotary ‘Mark of Excellence’.
Additionally, the wheel and the word ‘Rotary’ were brought together to become the Rotary signature or Masterbrand.
Today, the 24 teeth and 6 spokes depicted by the wheel have no symbolic connection with the history of Rotary other than to give the impression of a real, hardworking gear.
Haddenham and District Rotary
Based on information compiled by the Rotary Global History Fellowship
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