A wheel has been the symbol of Rotary since our earliest days. The first design was made (1905) by Chicago Rotarian Montague Bear, an engraver who drew a simple wagon wheel, with a few lines to show dust and motion. The wheel was said to illustrate "Civilization, Movement and Service work in action." Most of the early clubs had some form of wagon wheel on their publications and letterheads.

The creativity of the first Rotary clubs yielded great divergence in early emblem designs. Clubs would often incorporate local history or landmarks into their emblems. The Rotary Club of Lincoln, Nebraska, superimposed the wheel over a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in its emblem, while the Rotary Club of Oakland, California, used an oak tree for its design.

Looking at early emblems of two Pennsylvania clubs, it is easy to trace the new Rotary wheel taking shape. The Rotary Club of Pittsburgh appears to be the first club to use the mechanical gear iconography in late 1910. But around 1911, the direct forerunner of the official RI emblem came from the Rotary Club of Philadelphia, which was developing its first emblem, letterhead, and lapel pin designs.  (The club also foresaw the future in its design when it shortened the name of the International Association of Rotary Clubs to "Rotary International" — a year before RI even starting using that phrase.)

At the 1911 convention of the National Association of Rotary Clubs it was suggested that delegates adopt a standard emblem. They would base it upon the wheel, which had become the generally accepted emblem of Rotary clubs. The Board of Directors appointed a committee to come up with a design, which copied the emblem used by the Rotary Club of Philadelphia. (It was probably only a coincidence that the design committee members all came from Philadelphia.)

 Thinking the wagon wheel design didn’t convey the Rotary idea very well, they had added cogs to create a working wheel, symbolizing the members working together, literally interlocked with one another to achieve the organization's objectives. They used 19 cogs in honor of their club, which had been chartered as the 19th club in the world.

 The 1912 Rotary convention approved the Philadelphia design for the whole organization, though many clubs continued to use their own designs.  

In 1918, a Rotarian engineer from Minnesota petitioned Rotary to amend the design of the wheel. He said that a cogwheel with 19 cogs would not work. He said that the emblem had square-cornered teeth of disproportionate size, that the cogs were irregularly spaced. This Rotarian, Oscar Bjorge, called the emblem "an insult to engineering that only the brain of an artist could conceive."

So he sketched a new wheel with six spokes (symbolizing the Six Objects of Rotary at that time) and 24 cogs or teeth. He also added a keyway, which locks a wheel to a hub, thus making it a worker and not an idler. 

Now that the emblem committee had found its design, an official description of the wheel emerged from Duluth. "The emblem consists of …a wheel with gears cut on the outer edge and the spokes separated sufficiently to allow…space to show the enamel [and define] the spokes." In the original design, the spokes "indicate strength" while the gears or cogs "relieve the plainness of design" and "symbolize power".

Despite the official description of the association's emblem, in the years that followed, individual Rotary clubs continued to design their own versions, diverging from the standard established in Duluth, to the dismay of headquarters.

To address the problem, in December 1918, the Board of Directors resolved to adopt the gearwheel as the official corporate seal. Yet confusion still reigned, and the Rotary wheel still was taking more than one guise.  Even The Rotarian Magazine couldn't seem to get it right: in three consecutive months in the spring of 1919, the magazine added to the confusion by publishing three different images of the wheel, each with an increasing number of gear cogs.   But there was also a problem with that design: it was not mechanically sound.

The problem was that proportions of the wheel, including its small teeth with large spaces in between each tooth, would make it doubtful that the gear "would get very far before every tooth in the entire outfit would be stript [sic]." The emblem seemed to them to be "the most impossible sprocket-wheel that only the brain of an artist could conceive."

But there would be one last criticism. As soon as the January 1920 issue of The Rotarian was published, another Rotarian, Will R. Forker of the Rotary Club of Los Angeles, California, pointed out an additional overlooked defect of the redesigned emblem. "The hub design of the new wheel is that of an idler wheel or gear, [as] there is no provision for the reception of power to or from the shaft. My idea of Rotary is not that it is…an idler organization…but that it is a real living force."

Forker suggested inserting a "key way" into the design's hub to make the new wheel a "real worker." The official specifications of the re-engineered, mechanically correct Rotary wheel were approved by the RI Board at their January 1924 meeting, and the new emblem, whose official colors were royal blue and gold, has remained unchanged — and working — ever since. 

The Rev. E.K. Means of the Rotary Club of Monroe, Louisiana, used the same imagery in an editorial published later that year. "Rotary is a vast machine and every club a wheel. I firmly believe that all the great machinery of Rotary represents a providential movement," Means wrote. "Our Rotary wheel means that our best gifts of service are rolling always in the right direction." 

In 1922, it was decided that all Rotary clubs should adopt a single design as the exclusive emblem of Rotarians. So, the present gear wheel, with 24 teeth and six spokes was adopted by the "Rotary International Association." The gear teeth around the outside represent the fact that work is to be done. The six spokes represent the inner direction and path of our Vocational Service, through the representation of our membership via the classification system. Similarly, these same spokes represent an outward distribution path of Rotary's ideals of service and the Four Way Test… going out toward the community, vocations and businesses that our members represent.

A group of engineers advised that the geared wheel was mechanically unsound and would not work without a "keyway" in the center of the gear to attach it to a power shaft. So, in 1923 the keyway was added to signify the wheel was a "worker and not an idler". The keyway in the center of the hub is of great significance, because it represents the individual Rotarian member, who is the key factor in every club. Quality members are the keys, needed for the hub to engage with the shaft and turn, putting the energy into motion and creating the power for the gears to do their work.

The re-engineered emblem they drafted featured six spokes or arms and 24 teeth or cogs, not to mention a more sturdy appearance. (The numbers of teeth and spokes have no symbolic connection or significance to the history of Rotary; rather, they were meant to give the impression of a real, hardworking gear.)

So Rotary had found its official emblem. After the publication of the article, headquarters began to take steps to adopt the redesigned wheel at the next convention.

It was also determined that blue and gold would be the official colors of the organization, so the wheel was designed with these colors. The four blue bands within the outer radius of the gear represent our four avenues of service. And the design which we now know was formally adopted as the official Rotary International emblem.

In 1928, the exact specifications were written into the Manual of Procedure, and approved at the 1929 Dallas convention.

Today, Rotary's emblem not only distinguishes Rotary in the community, but also helps Rotarians identify each other and find clubs when traveling.

 The Rotary emblem, like Rotary's name, is a registered trademark, protected throughout the world by Rotary International. These trademarks, among numerous others owned by RI, are commonly referred to as the "Rotary Marks." RI encourages Rotary clubs, Rotary districts, and other Rotary entities to use the correct Rotary emblem in conjunction with the name of their clubs and districts when they host or organize local projects or events.

"The Rotary emblem is recognizable as the symbol of Rotary around the world," said Jomarie Fredericks, intellectual property manager for legal services at RI. "Following the RI Board's guidelines for use of the Rotary Marks will ensure that Rotarians will be able to use them for generations to come."