“Get your bearings.” An interesting phrase on several levels. Typically, it means to figure out where you are, relative to your surroundings. Although weirdly enough, the word “bearing” means how you hold yourself, as in a regal or military bearing, or “How are you holding up?” Expressions like that. We know it more in terms of a device that carries (or holds) a load, and there are a bunch of those!
To figure out where you are in the world, you ideally need three points of reference. First, altitude, as in high or low, as in underwater or in the mountains or sky above, or at sea level. Next, you need to know how far north or south you might be. It could be at one of the poles of the earth or smack in the middle—the equator—or anywhere in between. Lastly, you need to know how far east or west you are from some reference point or another.
Altitude isn’t too tough to manage; whether on the top floor of a building, walking the streets or flying in a plane. You can usually get by nicely without measuring accurately; a good guess and perhaps a visual check will do it. How far north or south is a bit more difficult, but on a world scale, we’ve been doing it adequately for thousands of years, thanks to the concept of latitude—essentially an imaginary grid of parallel lines that ring the planet. Columbus, for example, had a real good idea what altitude he was sailing in—sea level—and what latitude to take when he headed west. What he had no clue about was what time it was where he was, or in Spain where he came from. He could only guess and that’s why he thought he was in India when he landed here over 500 years ago. (He managed to “bear up” under the strain though.) No one in history, before the late 1700s, could actually navigate on the open sea to within 50 miles or so of where they wanted to go!
Hard as it is to imagine in our world of GPS, this issue of “timelessness” had plagued civilization for most of its existence. The imaginary lines that circle the world define east-west positioning: wide at the equator and disappearing at the poles, looking like you just sliced an orange. But until about 1740, “getting your bearings” wasn’t really happening, except by total guesswork. A nuisance on land, but dangerous and inhibiting at sea—no landmarks! The problem had to be solved; ships were crashing, getting lost and worse. It was a mess. It was basically an economic necessity to emerging world trade, and the industrial revolution, not to mention the safety of men and ships at sea. If you’ve heard of or seen the books and films about the subject of finding longitude, you probably know the backstory… and it’s a good one. For our purpose, it’s the outcome that mattered.
Clocks and watches weren’t new; they had been around for hundreds of years, even 300 years ago. What changed, and solved the “longitude problem,” was the invention of a timekeeper that actually kept time. Nothing had, until then—at least not well enough. Well, there are inventions and there are inventions, some hidden in others. In the case of the world’s first accurate sea clock, there were a couple of doozies!
A timely invention
So much for finding where you are in the world. To move about the world takes bearings of another definition. These bearings, of one type or another, have been around even longer than clocks and watches… maybe even ships. Logs under blocks of stone to build pyramids, wooden balls under a rotating table the Romans used in shipyards, and da Vinci was even drawing the prototypes of modern bearings for use in his helicopters… just eight years after Columbus’ voyage! For most of recorded history, that’s how we rolled! What was severely lacking in both timekeepers and bearings was a breakthrough design and some real precision. Like another world-changing event I could name, they came from the most unlikely source you could pick: a carpenter!
John Harrison, a carpenter by trade and a music lover by nature, could hear five sounds when others only heard one note. It’s a wonder he didn’t invent the metronome. Lucky for us, instead he heard about the longitude lottery the British government posted in 1714. Mind-blowing money to be won not by luck, but skill. Skill, John had; he could already build clocks, and some he made still run today, all made of wood. When he moved from wood to metal, among other things, he had to figure another way to cut friction since his wooden clocks, parts made of Lignum Vitae, were frictionless, wearproof and needed no lubrication! As he spent the next 50 years figuring out how to build what no one could teach and none had done before, he made the lateral leap from pendulums (useless on ships) to springs and the bimetal strip to keep time in any temperature. But the biggie came with his third attempt: the caged roller bearing! His fourth attempt wasn’t a clock at all, but a giant 6″ pocket watch, which finally solved the unsolvable problem, won him the prize and changed the course of history. Captain Cook and King George saw to it—after one hell of a struggle. The irony is Harrison created a V12 when the world hadn’t figured out the steam engine yet. Put another way, his timekeepers were too complicated to be easily duplicated, too expensive to build (costing a third as much as an entire ship), with way too many parts… and his designs quickly faded into oblivion after others were able to simplify and improve on his concepts. All this tweaking duly evolved into the chronometer, as it’s called today. His bimetal strip, on the other hand, remains in every household thermostat and even the circuit breakers on older Harleys!
Once Harrison’s revolutionary, hand-made, brass-rollered, bronze-caged roller bearing was among us, it led to many hitherto unimagined innovations and uses… right quick! It could be argued that these bearings were as important as the steam engine to the Industrial Revolution, and certainly contributed as much as the chronometer to Britannia ruling the waves (and world commerce) for a century or so. As soon as the fruits of the revolution allowed it, tiny true spheres were trapped also, leading to the caged ball bearing, attributed to a gent named Phillip Vaughn in 1794. Shortly after the bicycle craze began, Jules Suriray, a French dude with a shop in Paris, in order to handle the same type of non-axial behavior we still experience on our rides, patented the radial ball bearing in 1869. By 1883 a German fella named Friedrich Fischer figured out how to mass-produce the balls themselves very precisely; a concept leading to the industry as we know it today! Henry Timken, a retired carriage maker whose name might be familiar to Harley riders, came out of retirement at 67 to patent the tapered roller bearing and start a new manufacturing company of his own in 1899. By 1904 the editor of Der Motorwagen magazine, Robert Conrad, patented what we might call the “separated” or deep-groove ball bearing, which eliminated the balls getting bunched up in the cages. In 1907, Sven Wingquist invented the self-aligning ball bearing, where the outer ring (race) is spherical so the inner race is free to tilt with the shaft, and SKF was born. A rush of mighty good things in terms of reliability and durability for all the cars and motorcycles (like Harley-Davidson) proliferated by the turn of the 20th century.
Speaking of proliferation, what’s happened to the bearing in the last 100 years would fill a book, but suffice to say it’s been about new applications, materials, manufacturing and refinements. But the basics have been with us for a long time now, thanks to a self-schooled, genius clockmaker.
What “bears” further discussion is how modern bearing design advances might matter to us; specifically, applied to the chassis of our motorcycles. We’ll get into the critical role they play when we roll down the road like clockwork… next time!