Researchers: Stefano Barazza (PI, Law, Swansea University), Dimitra Fimi (English Literature, University of Glasgow formerly Cardiff Metropolitan University) & Davide Crivelli (Mechanical Engineering, Diamond Light Source formerly Cardiff University).
In 1794, Philip Vaughan, an iron master from Carmarthen, patented the first ball bearing mechanism in the world. More than 200 years later, his invention remains central to modern transport, construction and manufacturing: ball bearings can not only be found in the wheels of cars and bicycles or in jet engines, but also in the most disparate objects, from DVD players to treadmills and printers.
This work aimed to shed light on Philip Vaughan’s life, contextualising his invention and restoring his place as a prominent figure in Welsh industrial history. Through archival and field research, as well as the invaluable help of a living descendant, we were able to reconstruct key aspects of Vaughan’s life and professional career, his formative years in Pentyrch and Cardiff and the move to Carmarthen and, later, Kidwelly, where he managed two iron foundries.
We identified archival evidence that points to Philip’s interest in new technologies, his recognised status within the industry, and the extensive travels that might have inspired his invention. Although ball bearings were widely commercialised only a few decades after Philip Vaughan’s death, our research suggests that this Welsh ironmaster played a pivotal role in shaping one of the greatest engineering advancements of all time. This was not the product of imitation or chance, but a prime example of Welsh ingenuity, inventiveness and determination.
We established contacts with the Carmarthenshire County Museum with a view to arranging an exhibit to share our findings with both the local communities and the wider public, and with Techniquest for an interactive exhibit on Philip Vaughan’s invention. We also produced a toolkit (figure 1) to provide a practical demonstration of the invention, specifically aimed at schools, as well as a 3D rendering of the invention as described in the 1794 patent (figure 2).
We plan to publish our findings in an upcoming journal article, which will discuss our archival research and the broader technological and industrial context of the invention. In the coming months, we plan to continue our dissemination work with schools and museums to highlight Philip Vaughan’s incredible achievement and to inspire the creativity and inventiveness of young inventors, both in Wales and elsewhere, who might follow in Philip’s footsteps.