Are Today’s Bearings the Same That Were Used in Roller Skates in the ’60s and ’70s?
Today’s roller skate wheels are an amazing feat of engineering. They’re made from various synthetic rubber compounds, depending on the degree of hardness desired. Then, right up against the axle, is the technological marvel of the bearing, the machined component that facilitates rotation. Bearings include an outer ring, inner ring, balls, retainers, shields, and snap rings. Today’s skate wheels have races that press in and can rotate with minimal friction.
Skate, Forrest, Skate!
Well, what about those skates of old? Remember the metal monstrosities that strapped onto PF Flyers or Pro-Keds? They looked like foot-only versions of Forrest Gump’s leg braces . . . with metal wheels!
Back in the day, the wheels of those strap-ons made a lot of noise, as kids’ legs powered them up and down the concrete. The vibration was also good for shaking loose any tooth that might have outlived its usefulness.
Whoever thought metal wheels against concrete was a good idea must have had it out for their kids — or was a dentist. Sure, there were a few improvements from earlier days. The wheels were metal instead of wooden. And yes, ease of rotation came from ball bearings against the axle and then advancing designs of the bearing to hold the metal balls in place.
However, the technological juggernaut of metal wheels on concrete with just a rudimentary bearing system reduced friction only so much. Newborn babies crawled faster, so mothers were never that worried.
Race to Perfection
It’s not fair to call the bearings of today the same as yesterday’s. But it is fair to say that without yesterday’s there wouldn’t be today’s.
Ball bearings had been part of roller skates as early as 1884. As with all bearings, they reduced friction and allowed the skate wheels to turn more freely than before. In 1908, a “cup and cone” device served as the beginning of the bearing. It held the metal balls inside a sealed casing. The technology continued to advance until today’s modern bearings, which hold ball bearings permanently in place.
So in the end, it was the technological advancement of the bearing that allowed roller disco to flourish . . . and emergency room visits to skyrocket. Permanently enclosed, friction-less rotating bearings allow skate wheels to spin at nearly go-kart speeds. One can only hope equal technological advancements are being made in braking systems.
By the way, E.H. Barney invented the clamp-on skate system for both ice and roller skates in the 1890s. This is the model that could extend each time junior’s foot sprang out an extra size. Prior to this, skates had been attached to boots with leather straps, which were more likely to break. Since his whole apparatus was metal, he must have just figured that metal wheels fit the program.