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Isaac Babbitt: the man behind the bearing metal


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My wife and I went to a recent presentation at the Old Colony Historic Museum in Taunton, Mass.  While looking at the exhibits in the museum before the talk, we saw a number of early 19th century teapots and tableware made of pewter and Britannia metal, inexpensive simulations of sterling silver.  The real surprise was finding portraits of Isaac Babbitt and his second wife from 1849, with a brief description of his role in making the old tea pots - and the kind of journal bearings used in old and new cars (crankshaft mains and rod bearings). 


It seems that old Isaac (1799-1862) was involved in making tableware from pewter and Britannia, alloys of about 92-94% tin, 2-6% antimony, and 1-2% copper.  Pewter is an ancient alloy dating back to Egyptian times, Britannia came later as a smoother and shinier form of an easily cast and worked alloy.    There were a number of companies that made silver and pewter tableware in the area around Taunton, Mass. in the 1800's, including Reed & Barton.  Isaac Babbitt worked there for some years, but left to form his own company.  By 1839, he received a patent on the use of pewter, Britannia, and related alloys for use on journal bearings for railroad cars and engines.  It must have been an amazing insight to figure out that this family of alloys would make good bearings for rotating shafts with heavy loads.  Today, we are still using steel bearing shells lined with thin layers of the same basic alloys in all engines and many other applications.


Here are images of the portraits of Isaac and Eliza Babbitt at the Old Colony Historic Museum, and a PDF copy of his patent from 1839.  It's always nice to know that there was a real person behind those things that we pay little attention to every day.  I did mention to the museum staff that the description under his portrait had a mistake: the bearings he made were journal bearings, not ball bearings.

Isaac Babbitt 1 sm.jpg

Eliza Babbitt sm.jpg

Babbitt portrait description sm.jpg


Babbitt 1839 US1252.pdf

Edited by Gary_Ash (see edit history)
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Thanks Gary,

I had no Idea he was local (I'm in RI). and I've been to that museum but have to admit I didn't look at the teapots. I was also unaware of the Reed & Barton connection. I have a silver plated coffee set made by R&B that was given to my great-grandparents as a wedding present in 1876. They also have the Thompson fowler, one of only 4 or 5 known early 17th century guns with a firm American provenance (three of which are in Massachusetts).


Joe Puleo

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2 to 6% antimony in an alloy is not something you would ideally choose to work with or probably drink from.  Its place in the Periodic Table of elements makes it un-surprising that its toxicity is similar to that of arsenic.  Its unusual property which favoured its use in printing type was that it expands as it freezes, whereas all other common casting metals shrink.  So type letters cast with antimony content printed sharper images.  Inhalation or ingestion of antimony dust by tradesmen was an occupational hazard.  Aresenic is probably more persistent as a health risk now, because it has been a popular remedy for protozoal deaths of animals in our food chain.   It does not seem far-sighted to protect poultry and pigs with a life expectancy of weeks or months  when the protective agent can damage the  DNA genetic code and is carcinogenic at very low levels .   I guess we are expected to take responsibility for ourselves.

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19 hours ago, cahartley said:


Also interesting is the caption calling Babbitt a "ball bearing material"....... :blink:


It is extremely unlikey that anyone associated with the museum actually knows what a Babbitt bearing is. This sort of mistake is very common in museum descriptions and is one reason why they nearly always have to be taken with a grain of salt.

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