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Hartford Technologies Blog

The First Precision Ball Bearings: Ancient Man's Use of Simple Bearings

Posted: Dec 1, 2016 2:06:00 PM

Precision ball bearings have become an unseen but crucial part of the modern industrial age. Nearly every type of machine that is responsible for some kind of motion makes use of bearings to make their movement smoother by reducing friction. Such a vital part of modern machines did not materialize fully formed into the world, but has a long and storied history of development.    

Wooden Rollers

At the earlier stages of civilization, when men were beginning to form the rudiments of a tribe for protection against wild elements, the idea of reducing the effort of dragging an object over a distance by adding rolling logs of wood underneath it was being discovered. This rudimentary form of a rolling bearing was a discovery which actually predates the invention of the wheel itself.

Some of the earliest examples of simple bearings, plain bearings are found in ancient Egyptian drawings, which depict heavy stone building blocks being moved around with the help of wooden rollers that have been lubricated with the assistance of some kind of liquid compound. Another very early example of a plain bearing log being used to move objects dates back to 40 BC, and the remains are still in evidence where they were found in Lake Nemi, Italy.

The celebrated artist Leonardo Da Vinci, who was also an inventor, incorporated the design for roller bearings in many of his invention designs, including that of a helicopter which dates back to the year 1500.    

Ancient Use of Rollers

Some of the ways that simple bearings, plain bearings were used in the ancient past include:

1. Carrying heavy loads over long distances in a quicker and more efficient manner.

2. Supporting heavy structures which need to be able to move on their axis.

3. Galileo described a system of using rollers to reduce friction by enclosing the rollers in metal cages, so that the rollers themselves do not add to the friction caused by their movement. It remains unproven whether this system was ever actually put to use.

Dawn of Industrialisation 

Before metallurgical innovations allowed for the creation of metal bearings, the kind of wood or stone based bearings that were used were not very efficient for their purpose. But the advent of the industrial age needed and allowed for the creation of metal bearings which were able to dramatically reduce the amount of friction existing between two load bearing machine components.     

A patent for a ball bearing was awarded to Philip Vaughan in Britain, 1794. His design became the basic blueprint for the modern ball bearing. The addition of ball bearings allowed for the efficiency of machining processes to increase dramatically, and the resulting proliferation of factories was responsible for the shift of society from an agrarian culture to an industrial culture.   

This evolution of simple bearings, plain bearings is what brought about the modern, high-quality bearing parts that we see today, capable of reducing friction to even lower levels, resulting in machines being able to operate at better speeds than ever.  

Topics: Precision Ball