Steel ball bearings are something few people outside the industrial world ever think about. Even those in industries that require the steel ball bearing to function don’t think about them very often unless they are engineers. A ball bearing is easy to take for granted, but it’s hard to imagine how much of modern industry could function without the simple steel ball bearing. In fact, the steel ball bearing has a long and storied history.
It’s a common cliché to say that we shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but in a way, that’s just what the steel ball bearing has done. It is based on the most fundamental engineering principle: a round body reduces the effects of friction. It’s why all ground vehicles have wheels, and why a vast number of mechanical applications have ball bearings.
The Origins of the Steel Ball Bearing
The steel ball bearing has its roots in early civilization or even before, but the ball bearing itself has been around for a surprisingly long time as well. Archaeologists found ball bearings on Roman Nemi ships that were constructed in just about the beginning of the modern era.
The Modern Ball Bearing
The product that we know now as a ball bearing was first invented and patented by a Welsh inventor named Philip Vaughn at the turn of the 19th century, back in 1794. Vaughn was the first to run the balls across a track in an axle assembly, creating what we know today as races, which are essential parts of any ball bearing mechanism.
Little significant progress was made in the use of ball bearings until over 70 years later when James Suriray, a French bicycle mechanic, patented his ball bearings and used them to build the winning bicycle in the first bicycle road race in history in late 1869. Following that historic event, the ball bearing’s place in history and its value to the world community was secure.
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