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Early ships' wheels (c. 1700) were managed in order to correspond to the movement of the tiller, with a clockwise movement (corresponding to a right tiller movement) moving the rudder and thus the ship to the left. At some point the control direction of the steering wheel was changed to make it a lot more consistent with the motion of a motor car's steering wheel. The design of ships' wheels most likely inspired that of the modern steering wheel.
A traditional ship's wheel is composed of eight cylindrical wooden spokes (though occasionally as few as six or as many as ten) shaped like balusters and all joined at a central wooden centre or nave (sometimes covered with a metal nave plate) which located the axle. The square hole at the center of the hub through which the axle ran is called a drive square and was often covered with a brass plate (and therefore called a brass boss, although this term was used more often to refer to a brass hub and nave plate) which was often etched with the name of the wheel's manufacturer. The outer rim is composed of four sections each made up of stacks of 3 felloes, the facing felloe, the middle felloe, and the after felloe. Because each group of three felloes at one time made up a quarter of the distance around the rim, the entire outer wooden wheel was occasionally called the quadrant. Each spoke went through the middle felloe creating a series of handles on the outside of the wheel's rim. One of these handles/ spokes was frequently given extra grooves at its tip which in turn could be felt by a helmsman steering in the dark and used by him to determine the precise placement of the rudder- this was the king spoke and when it pointed directly upward the rudder was dead straight. The wood used in construction of this type of wheel was most often either teak or mahogany.
Diagram of the function of a tiller using a ship's wheel and tiller ropes.
The steering gear of earlier ships sometimes consisted of a double wheel where each wheel was connected to the other with a wooden spindle that ran through a barrel or drum. The spindle was held up by two pedestals that rested on a wooden platform, often no more than a grate. A tiller rope or chain (sometimes called a steering rope or chain) ran around the barrel in five or six loops and then down through two tiller rope slots at the top of the platform before hooking up to two sheaves just below deck (one on either side of the ship's wheel) and thence out to a pair of pulleys before coming back together at the tiller and therefore the ships rudder. Movement of the wheels (which were connected and moved at the same time) caused the tiller rope to wind in one of two directions and shifted the tiller left or right. In a typical and intuitive arrangement, a helmsman turning the wheel counterclockwise would cause the tiller to move to starboard and therefore the rudder to swing to port causing the vessel to also turn to port.