The history of lubricants P1 OilChat#53


In a world that depends a great deal on machines, lubrication is absolutely essential. The science of tribology has advanced significantly in recent times, but the roots of lubrication extend back further than one might imagine. Lubrication in simple form has been in existence at least since the beginning of documented times. In this issue of our newsletter we will delve into the ancient history of lubrication.

lubricant is a substance introduced between two surfaces in relative motion to each other to reduce friction (and consequently wear) between them. Our forefathers first became familiar with friction in the Stone Age, when they discovered that they could create fire by rubbing pieces of wood against each other. We do not know for sure exactly when they mastered the art of making fire, but indications are that it was approximately 400,000 years ago.

Man’s search for effective lubricants and lubrication technologies has a colourful past, going back as far as the recorded history of humankind. Water was probably the first documented lubricant. The Egyptian mural on the right shows a statue being dragged along the ground. A man can be clearly seen on the leading end of the transporting sledge pouring a liquid (water?) on the ground in front of it, presumably as a lubricant. To learn more visit

It is impossible to list all the milestones in the colourful history of lubrication in a condensed publication like this, but the following fascinating highlights are worth mentioning:

4000 B.C. to 3500 B.C. Indications are the Chinese made use of the lubricating properties of water earlier than 3500 B.C.

3500 B.C. Wheels are an example of primitive, caveman technology. It was, however, so ingenious for those times that it took thousands and thousands of years for someone to invent it circa 3500 B.C. Evidence indicates they were first created to serve as potter’s wheels in Mesopotamia (Iraq).

3200 B.C. It took another 300 years before it was figured out how to use wheels on carts to transport objects. Wheels of the era were made of a solid piece of wood or stone with a hole in the centre for a wooden axle. The earliest ‘vehicles‘ were probably ox carts. The use of the wheel spread fast throughout Eurasia (including the Middle East) and the earliest images of wheeled carts surfaced in the remains of Slavic settlements in present-day Poland. It has been speculated that water was initially used to prevent the hubs of wooden wheels from becoming charred as a result of frictional heat.

3000 B.C. Wheeled carts were now in extensive use in the Middle East, although few traces of lubricant materials have been associated with remnants of such vehicles from that era.

3000 B.C. to 2000 B.C.  It was finally discovered that smearing a lump of animal fat or bitumen (black viscous oil seeping out of the ground) on the dry and squeaking parts made the wheel run quietly and cooler, but without scientific knowledge of friction, no one knew why.

2000 B.C. The invention of the spoked wheel allowed the construction of lighter and faster ‘vehicles’.  The earliest known chariots have been found in the Sintashta burials in Russia. The technology spread rapidly throughout the Old World and played an important role in ancient warfare.

2000 B.C. to 1650 B.C. The advent of high speed horse drawn chariots could possibly be seen as the birth of ‘Tribology’. Experimentation at the time led to the use of more sophisticated lubricants, including olive oil and other vegetable matter. The Egyptians discovered that some of the more viscous liquids not only dissipated heat better, but also prevented much of it from forming in the first place. At the same time, they observed that the wheels were turning more freely. These early discoveries marked the dawn of machinery lubrication.

1650 B.C. Olive oil appeared to be a lubricant of choice at the time. The grave of Egyptian king Tehut-Hetep was found to contain a description of the application of olive oil to reduce friction.

1400 B.C. Compounded lubricants have been identified on the axles of Egyptian and Roman chariots dating back to this age. The lubricant was most probably prepared by combining olive oil with lime.

1200 B.C. When metal replaced wood as moving parts in machinery during the Iron Age, crude chunks of animal fat or bitumen became inadequate lubricants. A next generation of lubricants were developed using fatty and oily substances derived from animal fats and vegetable extracts.

780 B.C. The Chinese discovered the friction-reducing properties of a mixture consisting of animal fats or vegetable oils and lead which resulted in the development of a new generation of compounded lubricants.

1760 A.D. to 1840 A.D. The increased demand for animal-based products as lubricants, and also as illuminating oil, during the First Industrial Revolution almost had disastrous consequences. The sperm whale was almost hunted to extinction to meet the demand for sperm oil. This, and the increasing difficulty to obtain other bio-based oils, triggered the search for alternative lubricants, especially petroleum (mineral) oils.

Many things have changed since the early days of lubrication, but machines and tribology endure in our modern technological world … a tribute to the true significance of these early achievements. In the next issue of our newsletter we will look at the modern history of lubrication.