The CIA, the Cold War, Howard Hughes, and the Triple Ring Bearing

By Mitch Bouchard

By Mitch Bouchard

This has got to be one of my favourite bearing-innovation related stories to date. I remember a few years ago my Dad and I came across this story in a magazine (maybe National Geographic) and saw this picture of a humongous triple ring bearing, embedded in a great Cold War covert op story:

The article had a caption that said it was the biggest bearing of it’s kind ever manufactured. As a bearing geek, I know that’s no ordinary bearing!

Today we see these bearings on deflection compensating rolls in paper mills (this particular design was favoured by Kusters of Germany). This bearing, however, was designed for and served as the gimbal bearing on the Glomar, a ship built by Howard Hughes at the request of the CIA to undertake the top-secret recovery of Soviet Submarine K-129 which sank to the bottom of the sea in 1968.

COLD WARFor those of you who are interested in the story, you can scour Youtube or Wikipedia.

When my Dad and I first read the article, we speculated on who might have manufactured this incredible bearing.
Surely we could track down someone within our network who knew something about this, right? … And so began an awkward series of conversations with high ranking bearing gurus and technical bearing geeks the world over (no offense to anyone but I’m sure you know who you are). It probably didn’t help that we both couldn’t really remember the details of the article, and that all the people involved in Project Azorian were presumably sworn to secrecy (or worse). Above all that, 1968 is almost 50 years ago. Eventually we gave up.

Until now. Through this great thing called the internet, I tripped over the entire story as I was searching for information on triple ring bearings. I even managed to easily track down the patent originally filed in 1971 by SKF. I don’t know for sure, but I would think that is some indication of who the manufacturer was.

Amazing how things seem to come around full circle in the bearing business. Mystery solved Dad.