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, south of Orebro in Sweden, on 10 December in 1876. The eldest of four children, his father, Sven Daniel Wingquist, was Hallsberg’s railway station inspector and 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 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 1895 and took employment in various workshops in the States for a year.
From 1896 to 1899, Wingquist was employed as an engineer at Jonsereds Fabriker in Sweden.
His Greatest Invention
In 1899, Sven became an operating engineer at a weavery in 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; the ball bearings broke down at an alarming rate, causing even more damage to the drive shafts.
Wingquist felt that he needed to think of a solution to the problem. He studied different concepts used on the development of ball bearings from all over Europe. Wingquist took great interest in a report from Professor Richard Stribeck in 1902 who tried comparing the properties of ball bearings and plain bearings using scientific methods. Wingquist realized that there was a lot of room for innovations in this industry and so he set up a small workshop inside the factory where he worked and conducted several tests and devised different designs.
In 1906, Wingquist produced a simple design called the single-row, self-aligning ball bearing. He was granted a patent for this design but it had the disadvantage that it could not cope with much axial load (a force administered along the lines of an axis) so Wingquist continued researching.
Building Svenska Kullagerfabriken (S.K.F.)
Wingquist invented the multi-row self-aligning ball bearings in 1907. This new ball bearing had double rows of self-aligning ball bearings with a spherical raceway in the outer ring which reduced misalignment issues and minimized the chance of expensive production stops.
His 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, with Wingquist having a substantial shareholding. Wingquist personally went around the entire country, demonstrating how his ball bearings worked and finding new customers who could 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 received a Swedish patent for his design of a multi-row self-aligning ball bearing in eleven countries, including his own.
In 1908 he patented a self-regulating ball bearing for axial pressure. 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, 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, leaving due to ill health. His health improved and he became Chairman of the Board in 1938, a position he held until his death in 1953.
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.
Sven Wingquist did not only apply his skills in his own company, but in other companies as well including 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.
Personal and Death
Wingquist married twice, first to Sofie Bredberg whom he divorced. Later he married Kristina Hult in 1919. Despite the huge success that Sven Wingquist achieved, he remained humble and lived simply. He preferred staying in the background and gave few interviews.
Sven Wingquist died on 17 April in 1953, leaving behind a legacy that still continues to benefit the world today.