Manufacturing Stack: The father of the tapered roller bearing

Weekly newsletter about the business of manufacturing and industrial history.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is an idea I’ve had in my mind for months. Feel free to respond and let me know what you think. The goal is to publish a weekly newsletter centered around manufacturing and industry. The topics covered within this theme may evolve over time.

I’m Alex Lipinsky. I work in industrial distribution and I’ve always been interested in industrial history and manufacturing. Nothing seems to fill the void of Modern Marvels and How It’s Made from TV when I was a kid. Hopefully this newsletter can fill that void and help share interesting stories from history and the present.

There are a few sections below, I’ll be experimenting with the content. Let me know what you liked best.

Manufacturing Profile

Henry Timken

Henry Timken’s name today carries on as one of the largest bearing manufacturers in the world.

But he started his manufacturing journey as an apprentice to a St. Louis master carriage maker in the 1840s. His inventions were numerous. The invention of the tapered roller bearing wasn’t until after his first retirement from a successful career as an inventor.

👇 Here’s the story.

As a seven year old in 1838, Henry Timken immigrated to the United States with his family from Bremen, now in Germany.

The family arrived in New Orleans and eventually settled in Sedalia, Missouri 190 miles west of St. Louis.

At the age of 16, Henry moved to St. Louis. In 1850, St. Louis had a population of 77,860. The eighth largest city in the United States. For comparison, Chicago had a population of 29,963.

Learning the Trade

In St. Louis, Henry began work as an apprentice to a master carriage builder. The three year apprenticeship concluded with Henry getting a job at another carriage builder as a journeyman carriage maker.

A journeyman is a worker, skilled in a given building trade or craft, who has successfully completed an official apprenticeship qualification.

he term "journeyman" was originally used in the medieval trade guilds. Journeymen were paid daily and the word "journey" is derived from journée, meaning "day" in French. Each individual guild generally recognised three ranks of workers: apprentices, journeymen, and masters.

Getting a Start

In 1855 at the age of 24, Henry started his own carriage manufacturing firm in St. Louis, finding small repair work. In 1857, the business was sold and Henry started a carriage building shop in the majority German populated Belleville, Illinois. Located on the major thoroughfare between St. Louis and Louisville, Kentucky.

After only two years in Belleville, the shop was sold and Henry used the proceeds to move to Pikes Peak, Colorado to mine gold. Only six months later, he returned to St. Louis.

The Civil War put a temporary stop to Henry’s business endeavors, and he served as a Captain in the pro Union St. Louis Home Guard.

In Missouri after the start of the Civil War there were several competing organizations attempting to either take the state out of the Union or keep the state within it.

Home Guard companies and regiments were raised by Union supporters, particularly German-Americans, to oppose the secessionist paramilitary Minutemen, secessionist elements in the official Missouri Volunteer Militia and eventually the secessionist Missouri State Guard.

In the post war years, the carriage market grew tremendously with the mechanization of American industry. Factory production of carriages led to unit prices dropping and parts becoming interchangeable.

The market grew from 6,000 producers and a total value of $18 million in 1850 (approximately $518 million in 2010) to 15,500 producers and $102 million in 1880 (approximately $2,940 million in 2010).

From Disaster to Opportunity

A fire in 1864 at Henry’s St. Louis Carriage Shop allowed him to rebuild with up to date machinery and processes. In 1877, another factory was built in St. Louis. This four floor building was a fully integrated manufacturing facility. From a blacksmith shop, sewing machines, wood working equipment, paint shop, to a showroom to sell carriages.

Carriage Maker to Inventor

As the carriage market grew and parts became interchangeable, Henry Timken found his first opportunity to scale his business beyond local carriage sales.

The product was the Timken Cross Spring, which was patented in 1877.

The Timken Cross Spring was advertised widely in trade magazines and regular ads in Harper’s Weekly building name recognition with the general public.

In addition to advertising the Timken Cross Spring, Timken focused on defending his patent rights against competitors, which was both necessary and commonplace due to the lack of regulation in the industry.

Several law suits focused on his improved cross spring. Ultimately, Timken’s cross-spring patent would be judged by the U.S. Supreme Court to be lacking in innovation because it embodied only minor mechanical changes from its predecessors.

However, by that time, Timken had already significantly enhanced both the reputation of his products and the degree of brand awareness by the general public.

Retirement to San Diego

At the age of 56, having built the carriage spring business into a successful enterprise, Henry left his son in law in charge of the business and moved to San Diego in 1887.

In San Diego, stayed involved in the carriage spring business and filed three new patents in the 1890s.

Almost Arrested for Animal Cruelty

The mule drawn carriages of the 1890s were held back by the roller bearings on the wheels. Henry and company experimented with creating a better anti-friction roller bearing.

To test a new bearing design, the company outfitted a mule drawn carriage with an exceptionally large load onto the streets of St. Louis. The driver was arrested for cruelty to the small mule pulling the carriage.

The case was dismissed when Henry’s son W.R. Timken displayed the improved roller bearing in court to show the mule was capable of pulling such a large load.

In 1899, the Timken Roller Bearing Axle Company was incorporated to further commercialize the improved bearing design.

The Tapered Roller Bearing

Henry Timken’s bearing innovation built upon a an 1895 tapered roller bearing patent from farmer John Lincoln Scott of Wilmot, Indiana.

In 1898, Timken patented a tapered roller bearing with conical rollers. The tapered design allowed the bearings to accommodate thrust load (for cornering) as well as radial load (for the weight of the load), which a standard bearing could also easily handle.

Allowing thrust load, as well as radial loads made a tapered roller bearings the ideal wheel bearing for carriages. The timing of this invention couldn’t have been better.

A New Home in Canton, Ohio

In 1901, Henry’s two sons moved the business from St. Lous to Canton, Ohio, where its headquarters remain today.

Canton was chosen because of its location between the steel manufacturing centers of Pittsburgh and Cleveland and the new automotive industry in Detroit.

The fledgling automotive industry turned into a goldmine for Timken. By 1922, over 90% of all automobiles manufactured in the United States and Canada used from 4 to 22 Timken bearings.

Henry returned to San Diego to officially retire in 1899, having turned the business over to his sons, who built the company into an enduring enterprise with $3.5 billion in annual sales and 17,000 employees.





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