Interview with Luminary Professor H. Peter Jost - The Man who Gave Birth to the Word “Tribology”

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation
Professor Jost

In September 2005, I attended the World Tribology Congress (WTC) in Washington, D.C. along with hundreds of tribology dignitaries from around the world. The WTC was sponsored by the International Tribology Council, an organization headed by H. Peter Jost.

Professor Jost resides in London and is without doubt the most well-known name in tribology today. I interviewed Jost for this column in Washington, D.C. and later followed up with more questions that only he could answer.

Before getting into our conversation, let me mention only a few of his countless recognitions. Professor Jost is an ASME Life Fellow, receiving the first honorary science doctorate of the millennium from the V.A. Belyi Metal-Polymer Research Institute of National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

He is chairman of several industrial technology companies. He has received state honors from France, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and Austria, and holds two honorary professorships and nine honorary doctorates.

Q: You once said that “tribology” was a name selected for a several-thousand year-old baby. Putting tribology in a modern context, could you describe its conception?

A: If there was a point at which modern tribology was conceived, it would be in September 1964, at the Joint Iron and Steel Institute/IMechE Lubrication and Wear Group Conference on Lubrication in Iron and Steel Works in Cardiff (United Kingdom), attended by a large number of practicing engineers and managers from the steel industry.

One of the sessions was called “failures and damage believed to have been due to lubrication and real causes”. During this session, speaker after speaker from the United States, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and other countries, presented slides showing cemeteries of broken steel mill machinery and equipment.

The failures were certainly not caused by faulty lubrication, although they were believed to be so by the uninitiated. During the discussion, the lack of knowledge of the designers of steel mill plant became quite obvious.

Presentation of the 2003 Tribology Gold Medal
to Prof. Hugh Spikes by HRH Prince Philip,
at Buckingham Palace.

At that time, a new British government had been elected and the late Lord Bowden was made Minister of State for Science. Over lunch, I expressed to him my dismay about the considerable losses shown during this conference and felt that because the new government was committed to transferring “white-hot technology” to industry, he should do something about it. As a result, he asked me to form a committee to investigate the question of lubrication education, research and the needs of industry.

I formed this committee principally from the upper levels of industry including two academic experts, one of them Professor (then Doctor) Dowson. During our deliberations, it became clear that the subject we dealt with was not merely lubrication or lubrication engineering, but it was far wider.

It included friction, brakes, clutches, bearing design, etc. It embraced physics, chemistry, materials technology and engineering, making it truly interdisciplinary.

Because there was no word for a new concept, I discussed this conundrum with the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. He suggested that the Greek word “tribos” – rubbing – would seem an appropriate basis, pointing out that Bowden and Tabor had established a Tribo-Physics Laboratory for the CSIRO in Melbourne, Australia.

The concept could be called “tribo science and tribo technology” or as an alternative, by the shortened version “tribology”. I felt that because it had a Greek basis, it could easily be adopted into a number of languages by most Western countries.

Regarding the concept’s definition, “the science and technology of interacting surfaces in relative motion and associated practices” was considered appropriate. However, before finalizing the term, I discussed it with Robert L. Johnson during my visit to NASA, in Cleveland, in October 1965. Johnson, along with Bisson, was credited for the total absence of tribological failures of the Apollo space missions. Bob Johnson felt it was an excellent description of the much-needed concept to be called tribology, and so it was.

Q: The Jost Report is widely recognized as a colossal event in the field of tribology. Could you tell us what motivated you to do this research?

A: The crucial element was the advice from the Ministry’s senior permanent secretary, to whom our operation was responsible. He saw the economic value of tribology to industry, and strongly advised that we should come up with figures of the savings obtainable with existing knowledge. With the help of the marketing department of a large oil company, we established a range of figures. In the final report, the lowest figure selected, viz: £515 million (908,582,775 USD, based on exchange rates in January 2006) per year for the United Kingdom.

The report was submitted to the minister in October 1965, only nine months after work on it had started, and it was published as a Government Report on March 9, 1966. This year, “tribology” will celebrate its 40th birthday.

The recognition that industry needed the basics of a concept that would lead to greater competitiveness and reliability, as well as safety, was the fundamental motivation. I have said on previous occasions “if in the days of Newton, bananas had been available and Newton had slipped on one of them, the laws of tribology would have been enunciated by him there and then.” Instead, it is said that an apple fell on him while he was asleep under the tree, and the laws of gravity resulted from there … at least that is the story.

Peter Jost (left) and Jim Fitch

Q: A lot of lip service has been given in recent years to the importance of getting management focused on modernizing lubrication practices in plants, but at best, progress has been slow. What is missing? What is it going to take to get management to see the light?

A: During the first 10 years after the publication of the Jost Report, similar investigations were commissioned in Germany, America, Canada and China. The Chinese one was the most comprehensive, lasting five years and involving 5,000 people.

It established that the application of tribology can save between 1 percent and 1.4 percent of an industrial country’s gross national product (GNP) for expense of research and development of an average of 1/50th once-only expenditure for an annual benefit derived after two years. In other words, for every $1,000 invested in tribology research and development, savings of $50,000 per year could reasonably be expected in two years time – not a bad investment, one might say!

The answer to your question of what is it going to take to get management to see the light must, therefore, be tribology’s benefits for competitiveness and profitability. While scientists have made great advances in tribology, these have not been translated sufficiently into terms of money, the one language that managements are sure to understand. We live in a financial world, therefore, selling the financial advantages of tribology is vital.

In any case, industrial managements are so overwhelmed with new technologies - many highly sophisticated, some emerging almost daily - that they could not care less about what additives are used in a lubricant, or what changes in industrial hydrodynamic formulae are used for the design of bearings.

What they are interested in, is to have evidence that on an average, for a one-time expenditure of $500 they could save $10,000 per year, putting them in a stronger competitive position. Once this knowledge gap is closed, educational establishments, especially those on the design side, will be urged by managements to concentrate on teaching the basics of tribology, not as a major field of study at the Bachelor’s-degree level, but one that cannot be maximized without the knowledge of designs and operation.

Q: What role does education play to bring people into the lubrication/tribology field at a practitioner’s level? What successes can you reference that can get them excited about the importance and opportunities of such a career?

A: This knowledge transfer is a duty of national tribology/lubrication societies or groups. From where I stand, I fear that this duty has not wholly been accepted by all such societies. In some countries, including Japan and Germany, the education/industrial connection is stronger than in others, with results of great marketing and financial benefits. One needs only to look at the number of tribologists employed by Toyota and Bosch, not to be surprised why their products can attest to the high reliability that users require and subsequently purchase.

The progress of the application of tribology depends on individuals. In the United States, the late Andy Chichelli saved the Bethlehem Steel Corporation many millions of dollars by applying tribological principles. He was a highly qualified but extremely practical engineer. However, his great contribution was properly recognized only after the British Iron and Steel Institute requested him to present a major paper at its Tribology and Iron and Steel Works Conference. As it says in the Bible: “the prophet is not without honor, save in its own house and its own land.” (Matthew 13:54-58 KJV)

Peter Jost (right) receives
the Austrian Medal of
Honour for Science and
Arts, presented by the
Austrian ambassador
in London.

Q: Should government intervene to help direct needed attention and resources to applied tribology and lubrication in industry?

A: The difficulty is that we live in a democratic society, where governments cannot tell educational establishments what to teach, including the subject of tribology. This was the case when the former East Germany was still under Soviet influence, when lubrication engineering was made a compulsory subject. Therefore, unless there is a compelling operational reason, as there has been in aerospace and the nuclear industries where tribological failure cannot be tolerated, the selling efforts by tribology societies to “educate” government to act has been far less than that required.

Of course, government can and should take action to create the needed awareness that causes motivation. This is exactly what happened in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s and ’70s, when the government promoted the benefits of tribology in design and operation. It accomplished this without spending much money. In fact, the Head of the Ministry, Sir Richard Clarke, called tribology “my twopenny halfpenny” exercise. The results were satisfactory and believed to have been one of the most successful investments made by the then-Ministry of Technology.

In general, however, apart from being eager to obtain governmental money, industry does not like governments to interfere. On the other hand, when industrialists see that government is taking an interest in a subject, they are only too willing to ensure not being left behind by not taking notice and advantage of it.

Q: How do you explain why there are no college degrees offered in lubrication engineering in North America today?

A: I have always held that tribology is such an all-pervading subject that it is not suitable to become a Bachelor’s-level subject, but rather should become a post-graduate subject, leading to research specialization on one hand, and to industrial application, especially in design, on the other.

I am not fully aware whether there are Chairs in the United States leading to post-graduate degrees in tribology, but I know that throughout the world there are well more than 50 professors of tribology. There are seven in the United Kingdom, all of whom are the second generation of tribology professors, those following Dowson, Barwell, Cameron and others. However, even in the United Kingdom, tribology societies and groups have failed to impress upon industrialists that they should sponsor the technology transfer in tribology – although it would be for their own ultimate economic benefit.

The difficult problem with the subject of tribology is that while the national beneficial effects of the application of tribology are enormous, the subject is so thinly spread over the whole spectrum of industry that the benefits of investment in research and development by a particular industrial undertaking are insufficient for it to spend the required resources. The exceptions are, of course, the industries manufacturing tribology products, for example, lubricants, additives, bearings, brake linings, etc.

Q: What is your opinion on how government- and industry-sponsored research in tribology should be apportioned between applied tribology and basic research in tribology?

A: On this question of the division of government- and industry-sponsored research into tribology, my experience suggests that 60 to 70 percent of sponsored research should be in the applied tribology areas and 30 to 35 percent in blue-sky research.

Q: What is the greatest threat to the field of lubrication and tribology, today and in the future?

A: The greatest threat to the field of tribology, today and in the future, is the continuation of ignorance of the subject and its consequences. Here again, there must be customer recognition. When the Apollo mission and European space exploration were being pursued, tribology was recognized to be a vital part of their success and money became available from the customer. The same applied to nuclear installations. I can recall no major accidents due to faulty lubrication or tribology, in either area.

Q: What would you consider to be the most monumental contributions to tribology?

A: I regard the birth and recognition of tribology as an interdisciplinary subject as being the most monumental contribution to tribology fields during my career. It was long overdue. Had it not been for the Report of the British Government Committee, which I chaired, I am sure it would have evolved from the efforts of others. The subject was ripe to come to the fore, I just helped to push it along. My main weapon was the promotion of economic benefits derived from the application of tribology at very low costs.

Q: Finally, what new discoveries or inventions are still unfulfilled in lubrication and tribology today?

A: As new inventions and technologies arise, they will bring with them new tribological problems to be solved. We have already penetrated deeply into the field of nanotribology. At the other end of the scale is teratribology (see sidebar). If we could find a method of tribological control of the movement of the earth plates, it would be possible to avoid the “stick slip” process of these plates, replacing it by slight, continuous movement, which would avoid earthquakes and not cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The deployment of the science of tribology in the field of plate tectonics is indeed a task for future generations of tribologists.

Did You Know?

Nanotribology – the study of friction and wear processes on the nanometer scale; the engineering of matter at a scale approaching that of individual atoms.

Teratribology – movement of plates on which the continents rest.

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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...