The History of Tribology Part 3: The Second Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution spanned the late 19th century to the early 20th century (from around 1870 to 1914), and was a period of rapid industrial development, primarily in Britain, Germany, and the United States.

In the last instalment of this series, we learned that the First Industrial Revolution was centred on steam power, water power, and mechanisation. In contrast, this following revolution was marked by the growth of the steel industry, widespread electrification, the development of the chemical industry, and the internal combustion engine!

Amid these titanic technological shifts, tribology was playing an absolutely crucial role in enabling and sustaining these advancements. Let’s dive in!

Developed by English inventor Sir Henry Bessemer between 1850-1855, the introduction of the Bessemer process allowed for the mass production of steel for the creation of large artillery pieces, but also revolutionised infrastructure and machinery.

As machines grew larger and more intricate with the introduction of so much cheap, readily available steel, tribology was crucial. For example, the wear and tear on the gears and bearings of industrial looms, which were pivotal in textile factories, required much more effective lubrication techniques than used in previous decades. Innovations in grease and oil helped industries run longer and more efficiently.

While steam power would eventually become increasingly obsolete over the years as the internal combustion engine took over, one area of industry which still heavily utilised steam were the railways. The Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. is a prime example of the railway boom of this era.

The intense friction between the iron wheels of steam locomotives and the rails required advanced understanding of wear and lubrication. Inventors and engineers like Elijah McCoy (for who the phrase – the real McCoy – was coined), developed railway and steam engine lubricants, and created specialised railway greases and techniques, ensuring smoother rail-wheel interactions and extending the lifespan of both tracks and train wheels.

Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station, the first electric power station in the United States, signified the dawn of widespread electrification. The generators and dynamos in such stations consisted of various moving parts, all of which would have required lubrication. For instance, the sliding brushes that transferred electricity from the spinning rotor required materials that minimised friction and wear but could still conduct electricity well enough to work!

Edison was not the only inventor concerned with electrification during this age, the famous Nikola Tesla was also busy engineering a very literal brighter future for the world. The Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade houses a collection of distinct technical exhibits, scholarly writings from newsletters, and journals which suggest that during his career, Tesla delved into the design and development of radial slide bearings, specifically tailored for certain electric motor configurations.

Tribological advances in lubrication and studies into wear directly impacted the durability and efficiency of early electric machines.

Karl Benz’s Motorwagen, often considered the first true automobile, leveraged one of the most influential inventions in human history: the internal combustion engine. Completed in 1885, the two-seater vehicle boasted a compact high-speed single-cylinder four-stroke engine, tubular steel framework, and three wire-spoked wheels which would not have looked out of place on a penny-farthing!The engine even delivered a whopping (at the time) power of 0.75 HP!  

More famously introduced in 1908 Henry Ford introduced the Ford Model T to the world. The Model T was the first car made affordable for the mass market due to its innovative assembly line production. Known as the “Tin Lizzie”, the Model T transformed transportation in America – and through its success, worldwide – making automobiles accessible to many and ushering in a new era of mobility.

The smooth operation of these early engines was contingent upon reducing friction between their myriad, complicated moving parts. Advances in tribology led to the development of specific engine oils, such as the forebears of today’s multi-grade oils, that could withstand varying temperatures and conditions, ensuring engine longevity.

The Haber-Bosch process, named for German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, was vital for producing ammonia and subsequently artificial fertilisers, and was a significant innovation of this period. The high-pressure reactors used in this process had moving components that had to endure extreme conditions. Lubricants, sealants, and wear-resistant materials, developed with tribological insights, were indispensable for the efficiency and safety of such chemical processes.

While the Second Industrial Revolution is often associated with big names like Edison, Tesla, and Bessemer, the silent force of tribology was working behind the scenes, ensuring that machines ran efficiently, railways operated smoothly, and engines roared to life with minimal hitches.

If you’d like to read parts 1 and 2 of this series, follow the links below!

Keep an eye out for the next instalment of our History of Tribology series, coming soon!