The history and evolution of lubricants
Lubricants are constantly at work all around us. They safeguard our vehicles, machinery and much, much more, and they’ve been doing so for a staggering length of time – far longer than you might think. As lubricant specialists, we know an awful lot about the development of lubricants. Here’s how they evolved into the high-performance products we rely on today.
Lubricants of the ancients
The purpose of lubricants is to reduce friction and cool surfaces in contact with one another, protecting them and the threat of damage and wear, and ever since the first bearings were invented, we can be sure that humans tried to make them operate more efficiently using lubricants.
The earliest bearings were in use during the Copper Age (4,500-3,300 BCE) in Mesopotamia, in the form of potters’ wheels and wheeled carts. While there isn’t any direct archaeological evidence of the use of lubricating oils from this time, it’s highly likely their operators would have used water, animal fat or even blood to avoid the charring of wood subject to friction.
Egyptian murals dating to around 2,000 BCE show liquids being poured in the path of sledges carrying statues, likely to ease their transportation, and olive oil-soaked timbers were used to move large stones in the construction of the pyramids.
During this period chariots were in common use, and archaeological remains of their axles dating to 1,400 BCE have been found to have calcium soap deposits across their surfaces – a sure sign of lubricant use during the height of Ancient Egypt. There is also evidence that during this period, bitumen was being used to lubricate potters’ wheels in China, likely drawn from surface deposits.
By the Greek and Roman eras, greases that combined lime and olive oil (calcium greases) were used to lubricate axles. Writings by Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE) also recommend that wagon axles should be lubricated with the boiled, viscous by-products of olive oil production.
Medieval lubrication technology
With fats, oils and primitive, oily compounds in use throughout the world, the next true evolution in lubrication came from the father of invention, Leonardo da Vinci. He introduced the idea that the coefficient of friction is the ratio of its force to the weight or load applied (u = FIW), and concluded that "every frictional body has a resistance of friction equal to one-quarter of its weight" – highly approximate to modern experimental findings.
Wishing to avoid friction, Da Vinci created self-oiling systems for axle ends and roller bearing attachments. It’s likely he would have lubricated his inventions with tallow, suet, or either rape or poppyseed oils – all in use in Italy during his time.
Later, in pre-industrial Sweden, black slugs were used as a grease for wooden axles. Collected in rural areas by children and available to anyone with a knack for finding them, they were used to lubricate hay wagons – even up to the start of the 20th century!
With the first industrial development of oil fields in the mid-19th century, petroleum-based mineral oils overtook natural oils – the new apex of lubrication technology.
At first, mineral oils were derided for their poor performance compared to natural oils, but after the invention of vacuum distillation in 1869 and its industrialisation in the first decades of the 20th century, producers were able to purify non-volatile substances in the oils that are still used within contemporary mineral oils.
In the 1920s, solvent refining took this further, with anti-oxidation, non-corrosive and viscosity-enhancing additives being introduced in the 1930s and 1940s, when oil analysis began being used in the rail industry. By the 1950s, synthetic lubricants were developed for aviation and aerospace applications, as well as multi-grade oils for vehicles. Lubricants had finally come of age.
Today, lubricants are highly developed using complex chemical methods designed to push their potential to the absolute limit. They feature synthetic formulations developed over countless hours of laboratory testing, and specially crafted additives to eliminate problems users have suffered with in the past. Making sure the world keeps moving, explore our oil, grease and fluid ranges today.