Where did the "wheel" group get its name?

The wheel group on *nix computers typically refers to the group with some sort of root-like access. I’ve heard that on some *nixes it’s the group of users with the right to run su, but on Linux that seems to be anyone (although you need the root password, naturally). On Linux distributions I’ve used it seems to be the group that by default has the right to use sudo; there’s an entry in sudoers for them:

%wheel ALL=(ALL) ALL

But that’s all tangential; my actual question is: Why is this group called wheel? I’ve heard miscellaneous explanations for it before, but don’t know if any of them are correct. Does anyone know the actual history of the term?

Asked By: Michael Mrozek


Wikipedia knows it?

The term is derived from the slang term big wheel, referring to a person with great power or influence

Answered By: JanC

It comes to us from BSD. This is verifiable. But where did it begin?

Here is a un-verified, but maybe verifiable explanation- BSD got it from the TOPS-20 O/S.


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Answered By: kmarsh

The Jargon File has an answer which seems to agree with JanC.

wheel: n.
[from slang ‘big wheel’ for a powerful person] A person who has an
active wheel bit…The traditional name of security group zero in BSD (to which the major system-internal users like root belong) is ‘wheel’…

A wheel bit is also helpfully defined:

A privilege bit that allows the possessor to perform some restricted operation on a timesharing system, such as read or write any file on the system regardless of protections, change or look at any address in the running monitor, crash or reload the system, and kill or create jobs and user accounts. The term was invented on the TENEX operating system, and carried over to TOPS-20, XEROX-IFS, and others. The state of being in a privileged logon is sometimes called wheel mode. This term entered the Unix culture from TWENEX in the mid-1980s and has been gaining popularity there (esp. at university sites).

Answered By: Steven D

As others have said, it comes from the term “Big Wheel”. I think many of us are not familiar with this term because, according to at least one site, it became a popular expression after World War Two:

Big wheel is another way to describe
an important person. A big wheel may
be head of a company, a political
leader, a famous doctor. They are big
wheels because they are powerful. What
they do affects many persons. Big
wheels give the orders. Other people
carry them out. As in many machines, a
big wheel makes the little wheels

Big wheel became a popular
expression after World War Two. It
probably comes from an expression used
for many years by people who fix the
mechanical parts of cars and trucks.
They said a person “rolled a big
wheel” if he was important and had

For those like me who were born in the 1980s, we may find the following a closer cultural reference for a Big Wheel:

i got root!

Answered By: Josh

On a Penny-farthing bicycle the Speed,Direction,Break almost everything of the vehicle are in the “BIG WHEEL”.

so is the root and group.


Answered By: ganesh

"Wheel" can be short for wheelhouse, on a boat. If people are in your wheelhouse, it means they are permitted to use the wheel and they are good at it.

wheelhouse (Oxford)


a small cabin with walls and a roof on a ship where the person controlling the direction in which the ship moves stands at the wheel

  1. (North American English)

a person’s area of expert knowledge or experience

Answered By: Jim Bertsch

If you’re in the wheel group you can take the wheel — think nautical.

Answered By: Rick O'Shea

Before TENEX was TOPS-10 and the Monitor (running on the PDP-10 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDP-10) and PDP-6 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDP-6) respectively). When it was needed to run diagnostics while timesharing was still up, the user of the diagnostic would execute R WHEEL to gain super-user privileges. The WHEEL program was hardcoded to only allow the user logged in as [6,10] to be treated like OPER[1,2].

Answered By: Joe Inwap

It’ just humor, it came from Rotary exclusive group society. The symbol is a wheel. The female participants are also called inner wheel.It had a fashion of exclusivity and power. Just to give a glimpse, famous rotarians were:

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Walt Disney
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Neil Armstrong
  • Bill Gates
  • Sam Walton (founder of Walmart)
  • Prince Charles
  • J. C. Penney
  • Angela Merkel (German Chancellor)
  • Sir Winston Churchill
  • Colonel Sanders
Answered By: MaxV
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