Today in Transportation History – 1869: A Big Little Invention for Bicycles

A Parisian mechanic named Jules Pierre Suriray was awarded French patent number 86,680 for a radial-style ball bearing he had developed for bicycles. By this time, the use of ball bearings to reduce friction between rotating parts had already long been identified with and applied to various forms of transportation. Ball bearings were used for the rotation of platforms on Roman ships dating back to the 1st century AD, for example, and Leonardo da Vinci included drawings of ball bearings in his design for a helicopter-like machine.

The ball bearings invented by Suriray, however, stood apart from previous applications as the first recorded commercial use of the device for bicycles.  His device, which included handmade metallic spheres, was specifically designed for a bicycle’s wheels to help keep those parts of the bicycle from grinding against each other and to improve the overall pace and motion of the vehicle.

Just over three months after Suriray received his patent, the ball bearing he created underwent a rigorous and well-publicized test during the world’s first major city-to-city bicycle road race. This inaugural race covered approximately 80 miles between Paris and Rouen, and one of its

participants – an Englishman named James Moore – rode a bicycle that had this type of ball bearing fitted onto the oversized front wheel. Moore won the race, and his victory helped highlight the advantages of Suriray’s invention. By 1872, German entrepreneur Friedrich Fisc


her was mass-producing these ball bearings. In the many years since Suriray’s device and improved versions of it have continued to play a vital role in the development and uses of the bicycle.

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