The History of Tribology: The First Industrial Revolution

In the first article of our History of Tribology series, we explained how from the first humans to the ancient Egyptians onto Leonardo da Vinci made use of tribology as a science, even though it hadn’t been defined as such until later on.

From using animal and vegetable oils to grease sleds for moving blocks of sandstone, to the creation of the first ball bearings, the pre-industrial age of tribology was marked by innovation – be it simple or remarkably complex for the time period.

However with the dawn of the first industrial revolution in 1760, the speed at which issues requiring tribological solutions arose, and the research and evolution of these solutions increased dramatically.

The first industrial revolution is most commonly referred to as the ‘age of steam’. With the introduction of water and steam-powered machines in manufacturing as the main drivers of industrial growth during this period, being termed the ‘age of steam’ seemed appropriate. From pumps used to remove water from deep mines, to mechanical bellows and pumps for furnaces, steam engines were the go-to mechanical source.

Two of the most famous steam engine engineers were developed by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt who both developed steam engines which powered industry in the late 18th and early 19th century.

While working in Dartmouth, Newcomen realised that using horses to extract water from the tin mines in Cornwall was slow and limited the depth at which mines could operate. Collaborating with his assistant John Calley (a plumber) he engaged in over a decade of experimentation with a steam pump, based on designs and work by an earlier engineer, Thomas Savery. In contrast to Savery’s design, Newcomen’s engine was not constrained by steam pressure; rather, the piston was driven downward by atmospheric pressure once the steam condensed and formed a vacuum within the cylinder.

The Newcomen Engine was so successful that over 100 were in operation around the United Kingdom and Europe after his death.

Even more influential than Newcomen was famed inventor, engineer and chemist, James Watt (for whom the unit of measurement for power – the Watt – is named after). Watt improved on the design of the Newcomen engine, using a separate condensing cylinder to help save the heat needed to warm the power cylinder. The result was a very similar design to Newcomen’s, but without any cooling of the power cylinder.

Through consistent testing and alterations to his design, Watt produced a more reliable version of Newcomen’s engine, which used half as much coal to produce the same amount of power.

In 1781 Watt designed a system using a collection of gears to turn the originally linear motion of the engines into rotary motion. This innovation was valuable not just for its pumping function, but also as it almost entirely removed the need for water wheels, a water source and favourable land as prerequisites for industrial growth.

Watt would later go on to develop the idea of horsepower, a standard by which all modern engines are measured!

While these two great men were not alone in the first industrial revolution, they certainly pioneered the way. Their inventions were groundbreaking, but without tribology and the further development of gears, bearings and lubricants, they would have been stuck at the first hurdle.

Possibly most importantly during the first industrial revolution the first mineral oil greases were created. These were necessary to keep the bearings and gears in industrial engines working smoothly, and were a marked improvement on the pre-industrial animal and plant oils, as these would (if left for too long) essentially turn rancid and break down.

Mineral oils (derived from crude oil, and almost certainly found during the increased mining of the industrial revolution) take longer to break down, and lubricate much more effectively than plant and animal based oils, allowing the engines of industry to run for longer and more efficiently.

We previously mentioned in the last instalment that French scientist Guillaume Amontons, proposed a number of laws related to friction:

  • The force of friction is directly proportional to the applied load.
  • The force of friction is independent of the apparent area of contact.

Amonton’s work, which had originally been met with some skepticism by his peers, was expanded on and proven by another French engineer – Charles-Augustin de Coulomb.

Coulomb examined the impact of four primary variables on friction: the surface area’s magnitude, the composition of the interacting materials and their surface treatments, the duration of contact between surfaces, and the applied normal pressure or load. Additionally, Coulomb investigated the effects of sliding speed, temperature, and humidity as a way to reconcile the varying contemporary explanations regarding the nature of friction.

We asked one of the founders of PCS Instruments, Dr John Hutchinson for his thoughts on the First Industrial Revolution and it’s importance in the history of tribology…

“The invention, improvement, and adoption of steam power during the industrial revolution reduced a lot of the reliance on traditional power sources like humans, animals, and nature.”

“Even though ancient civilisations used oils and greases, the industrial revolution introduced more scientific inventions such as mineral oil-based lubricants and rolling element bearings, which meant machines could handle far more significant loads and faster speeds while still controlling friction and wear.”

“These tribological advancements played a pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution, paving the way for efficient, dependable machinery, spurring productivity, and driving technological progress across most sectors of life.”

Stay connected for the next instalment of our History of Tribology series, coming soon!