The History of Lubrication

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

History of Lubrication

In the beginning, man invented machines. One of the first machines, and perhaps the most celebrated invention of all time, was the cart or wagon incorporating the wheel. This was soon followed by a chariot. Examples of early chariots were found in the tombs of Yuaa and Thuiu in Egypt dating to 1400 B.C.

Soon it was noticed that the hubs of the wooden wheels used on chariots were becoming charred from frictional heat. It has been speculated that attempts were made to cool the hub with water after races. Eventually, experimentation led to the use of other liquids including olive oil and fats. To their surprise, the Egyptians noticed that some of the more viscous liquids not only dissipated heat but also prevented much of it from forming in the first place. At the same time, they observed that the wheels were turning more freely. Of course, these early discoveries marked the dawn of machinery lubrication.

Much has changed since those momentous events in machinery and lubrication antiquity. Nonetheless, some 3,500 to 5,000 years later the wheel, the cart and lubrication endure in our modern technological world … a statement to the true significance of these early achievements. However, there have been many praiseworthy milestones along the way.

Noria is compiling a timeline to chronicle these lubrication milestones, from the earliest discoveries to significant modern contributions in the second half of the last century. We are planning a series of articles in Machinery Lubrication and Practicing Oil Analysis magazines to commemorate these historical events. These articles will eventually be compiled into a book on the same subject.

While we already have a lot of historical information in our library, much more is needed. We don’t want to miss any of the important contributions to the field. We are hopeful that many of you, our readers, have access to historical records relating to lubrication or oil analysis and that you will share this information. Perhaps your company has archives that include old product catalogs, photos, letters, illustrations, journals, biographies or anything of potential value to our research. For instance, we are interested in documenting discoveries and historical events relating to:

  • Lubricant additives
  • Base oil types, including synthetics
  • Grease and thickeners
  • Application equipment (oil rings, oil cups, grease guns, etc.)
  • Filters and contamination control devices
  • Discoveries of lubricant physical and chemical properties
  • Lubricant test instruments and methods
  • Noteworthy inventors, people and companies that were involved in lubrication
  • Lubrication theories and discoveries in tribology
  • Interesting and amusing anecdotes in lubrication history
  • Terminology (for instance, do you know what Oscar Zerk helped to invent?)

Vowles, H.P. “Early Evolution of Power Engineering.”

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About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advise...