In its simplest form, a ball bearing is the same as using wooden rollers to transport something balanced on top of them. As such, we could argue that ball bearings predate the wheel. Of course these days they have very sophisticated uses, but the basic principle is really very simple.
Wooden bearings have been found in the wreckage of Roman ships which date back to around 40 AD and it seems highly likely that they were used long before then. You may have images of Egyptians transporting slabs of stone on rollers, but actually this is supposition. Even so, the wooden bearing from the sunken ships was used in a rotating table, which is quite a sophisticated usage. It will have taken a long time to work up to this.
Ball bearings are used in Leonardo da Vinci’s staggeringly early design for a helicopter, which was made in around 1500 AD. The fact that he had designed a helicopter hundreds of years before it was finally built tends to distract from the low key point that he was innovating with bearings in order to achieve this.
Bearings were patented in 1869. The man who took out the patent was a bike mechanic from Paris called Jules Suriray. Later that year, they were used in the construction of the bicycle which was ridden to victory in what is thought to have been the world’s first bike race on roads.
Ball bearings are now used in everything from hard drives to skateboards. It’s astonishing to think just how many everyday items rely on them to even function, let alone function well. A bar stool will feature a ball thrust bearing, conveyor belts us roller bearings and when it comes to a complicated piece of machinery, like a car, bearings are all over the place. Gearboxes use roller thrust bearings while hubs use tapered roller bearings and there are many more on top of those.
A bizarre and ingenious use of bearings is in construction in San Francisco. The various columns which support San Francisco International Airport sit on massive steel balls which then sit on a curved base. If there is an earthquake, the base can move violently without the building above being quite so affected. The base can move 40cm or so, but the column isn’t jarred by this sudden movement and will move slightly less and at a slower speed thanks to the bearing.