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Simple Machines

During the 1920s and 1930s industrial designers took a new approach in the look, style, and creation of commercial products.


Self-Aligning Ball Bearing

Sven Wingquist
(Swedish, 1876–1953)

1929. Chrome-plated steel, 1 3/4 x 8 1/2" (4.4 x 21.6 cm)

Sven Wingquist, the inventor and designer of the Self-Aligning Ball Bearing, worked as a plant engineer in a Swedish textile company. Part of his job was to ensure that the textiles were produced efficiently, which required him to regularly monitor the equipment and the production process. After close examination it became clear that the machinery’s ball bearings were contributing to inefficiency. Ball bearings are designed to connect machine parts so that there is as little friction as possible when they slide against one another as they perform their designated operations. The bearings Wingquist’s factory used were so rigid they did not allow any flexibility when parts would occasionally become misaligned. Over time, the bearings would break down and slow the process of production.

Inspired by this functional problem, Wingquist developed a new type of steel ball bearing. In his design, an inner ring and outer ring contain a set of steel balls. The smooth balls roll against a smooth metal surface, “bearing” the load and allowing the two machine parts to move against each other without wearing down.

Wingquist first marketed and distributed his bearings in Europe and in 1908 established SKF Ball Bearing Co. in New York City for sales and distribution in the Unites States. This type of bearing continues to be manufactured and used worldwide.

Collection Firsts
In 1934, this self-aligning ball bearing was one of the first design objects to enter MoMA’s collection. It was included in the Machine Art exhibition, which presented machine-made objects such as propellers, gas pumps, and vacuums.