Lubricants & Lubrication
Where would we be without them?
This paper was originally presented at the Western Aerosol Information Bureau
44th Annual Conference in Napa, CA.
Lubrication and the materials supplying lubrication are
very much taken for granted today. However, the evolution
of this now very mature technology has been obscure
to everyone except the people responsible for the design
and use of equipment requiring these chemistries. The road from
use of simple materials to the complex products used today is a
This article is not intended to review the complete palette of
technological insights and developments that start from earliest recorded
history to present day, or to comprehensively review global
lubricant evolution and use. It is instead to give the reader a flavor
for the art and common sense that leads from the use of readily
available materials to simplify tasks, to the highly developed and
uniquely targeted materials that now dominate automotive, industrial
and, to a lesser extent, household lubricant requirements.
Lubrication at its most basic level is to make work easier by reducing
friction. This has been known and acted on since antiquity.
Figure 1 is a drawing from an ancient Egyptian tomb, about
1900 BC, illustrating the movement of a statue on a sled across the
sand. A heavily laden wooden sled on dry sand produces significant
friction. Performing the same work on wet sand, however,
with a reduction in the sliding friction, can be accomplished more
easily. Therefore, at the foot of the statue in the illustration, an
individual pours water in front of the sled, easing the work of the
Water can be efficient when available in large quantities, as
from the Nile River, and is cheap where large volumes are needed,
but it has drawbacks. In hot climates, water will evaporate and has
to be frequently replaced. In colder climates, water on a dirt road
can smooth a path for hauling, but if it freezes the mud may form
a non-uniform surface, increasing the work needed to move the
Development of the wheel and road paving helped reduce the
need for large volume water lubrication, but the development of
vehicular movement (chariot axles, cart wheels, ship masts) necessitated
the use of smaller volume but more
durable materials. These materials were from
organic, renewable resources (the first Green
lubricant movement!) such as fats and greases
from animal matter and plant-derived oils,
such as olive oil.
Beef tallow has been detected in ancient
Egyptian chariot axles found in uncorrupted tombs. Oils are recorded
being used to lubricate the rope and turning gears for water
wells. Catapults (and the further evolved trebuchets) required
greasing of the torsion mechanism needed for projectile launch.
Oils and greases were used to lubricate ships masts to make the
raising and lowering of the spars easier. Even crude soaps, formed
by the reaction of animal grease from cooking or sacrifice with
wood ash (see saponification) are noted as lubricants for launching
ships from builder’s docks in ancient Greek times up to the
launching of the Titanic. Trailing from the rear of Conestoga wagons
crossing the North American prairie in the 19th century was a
bucket full of tallow used for lubricating wagon wheels and axles.
Starting in the later Middle Ages up to the 20th century, whale oil
was collected first for use as a smokeless candle fuel. It was then
discovered that spermaceti oil, collected from the sperm whale
head and used as a fine lubricant oil, facilitated the developing
technology of chronometers, watches and sewing machines.
These materials, while improvements, have their own drawbacks.
Animal-derived grease and oils can turn rancid, with odors
of putrification from associated proteins. They can also attract
vermin. They are more expensive, since in many cases (such as
olive oil) the raw material will be in competition with food uses.
In many civilizations, these materials, such as the lanolin derived
from sheep wool, were also used in cosmetics. They are also
impacted by weather (poor crop growing seasons), famine, warfare
and diseases of both plants and animals. Additionally, as a tool is
worked, heat can develop, allowing the lubricant to run out from
where it is needed.
38 Spray September 2018
The trebuchet, a type of catapult, was a common type of siege engine that
used a swinging arm to throw a projectile. It required greasing from plant or