Sven Wingquist, a Swedish inventor, engineer and industrialist, is responsible for perfecting the system used for one of the most basic things that we still use today – the spherical ball bearing. With different industries and processes relying on this simple invention, he has made his mark in history.
Life and Education
Sven Gustaf Wingquist was born in the municipality of Kumla, which was found south of Orebro in Sweden in 1876. His father, Sven Daniel Wingquist, was Hallsberg’s railway station inspector. His mother was Anna Lundberg.
He attended Orebro Technical Elementary School until he graduated in 1894 and went on to study at the John Lennings Textile College found in Norrkoping. Here, he widened his knowledge on the technical aspects of the textile industry. Because Sven dreamed of creating more efficient processes in industrial production, Sven left for the US in 1896.
He eventually married a girl named Kristina Hult in 1919 while enjoying the continuous growth of SKF. Despite the huge success that Sven Wingquist achieved, he remained humble and lived simply. He preferred staying in the background and gave very few interviews.
Sven Wingquist died in 1953, leaving behind a legacy that still continues to benefit the world until today.
His Greatest Invention
In 1899, Sven became an operating engineer at a weavery in a district called Gamlestadens in Goteberg, Sweden. They continuously experienced problems because the factory was built on clay soil. Because the ground was unstable, the building housing their main operations shifted from time to time. This caused their drive shafts to incur damages, and their machines overheated. Since they wanted to avoid this fire hazard, they found a way to solve the problem. This solution however also meant ordering ball bearings that came all the way from Germany which caused deliveries to take several months. Even worse, the ball bearings proved to be of poor quality which means that their effort to avoid further damages would ultimately be useless. The ball bearings broke down at an alarming rate, causing even more damage to the drive shafts.
This was when Sven felt that he needed to think of a solution to the problem himself. He studied different concepts used on the development of ball bearings from all over Europe. He especially took great interest in a report from Professor Richard Stribeck in 1902. Stribeck was then affiliated with the Institute of Technology in Dresden, Germany where he tried comparing the properties of ball bearings and plain bearings using scientific methods. This gave Wingquist the idea that there was a lot of room for innovations in this industry. He set up a small workshop inside the factory where he worked and conducted several tests and came up with a lot of different designs.
In 1906, he came up with a simple design that was made up of two rows of balls and two rings, the single-row, self-aligning ball bearing. The outer ring’s interior was spherical in shape which allowed freedom of movement for the inner ring. With the entire load equally divided between the two balls, friction was controlled and further damage to the drive shafts was finally avoided.
Building Svenska Kullagerfabriken (S.K.F.)
Wingquist’s invention caught the eyes of a number of investors. Upon closing a few deals, Svenska Kullagerfabriken, more popularly known now as SKF, was founded in 1907. Wingquist personally went around the entire country, demonstrating how his ball bearings worked and finding new customers who can benefit from his invention. In a matter of months, he had talked to over a hundred companies in different areas and never failed to impress his audiences. He received order after order for his invention. In the same year, he got a Swedish patent for his design in eleven countries including his own.
Business boomed to unimaginable heights bringing Wingquist a lot of fame and fortune. In 1908 alone, over SEK 114,000 worth of products were ordered, which was quite a fortune at that time. After eight years, SKF grew to become a global company, with factories built in 27 countries around the world. By 1920, SKF has been receiving orders for SEK 23 million worth of ball bearings.
Sven Wingquist held the position of Chief Operating Officer until 1919. He became Chairman of the Board after this.
Today, SKF has truly become a global giant. With 106 years of experience in the business, they now employ over 46,700 employees in 140 sites and 16 technical centers across 32 countries around the world. Their products include actuation systems, bearings units and housings, condition monitoring systems, coupling systems, lubrication solutions, linear motion, magnetic systems, maintenance products, power transmissions, seals, test and measurement equipment, and vehicle aftermarket. They also offer different services like asset management, business consulting, customer training, engineering consultancy, logistics, mechanical maintenance, remanufacturing and maintenance, remote monitoring and diagnosis, and service contracts. SKF provides solutions across different industries including aerospace, agriculture, construction, material handling, mining and mineral processing, oil and gas, racing, and a lot more.
SKF continues to grow and evolve, adapting to the changes across different industries and applying newly established technologies. New factories are continuously being built and bought as the number of products and services that they offer across the different industries they cater to grows as well.
Sven Wingquist did not only apply his skills in his own company, but in other companies as well. In fact, he also became the CEO of Bofors, a weapons manufacturer found in Karlskoga.
Two of Wingquist’s young employees, Gustaf Larson and Assar Gabrielsson, eventually expressed their interest in building a Swedish car company. Because Wingquist was also a car enthusiast he supported their endeavor and gave them financial support through SKF. When it was time to think of a name for the car company, the two were trying to decide between calling it “GL” or “Larson”. Sven Wingquist thought that it would be more interesting to name the company something else and suggested a Latin word that literally meant “I roll.” This word was Volvo.