Back in 2007, Mark hit on Don Wilkes’ 1960s invention (U.S. patent #3,452,175) of the so-called “rolamite”over at boing-boing, quoting a description of it as “the only ‘basic mechanism’ invented in the 20th century.” Basically, a rolamite is a very-low-friction bearing. Rex Research has posted the entirety of a 1966 Popular Science article covering their invention, but the easiest way to understand what a rolamite is and how it works is to see one in motion. The above YouTube video, by user AutogenicMotor, shows the action of a simple linear rolamite, and the one below, by ErikBrinkman1, of a more complex rotary model.

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.


  • Josh Hernandez

    Can one incorporate a rolamite into a simple machine without using standard bearings? I suppose that a pair of linear rolamites, sharing rollers, could make a low-friction sliding mechanism, but have there been any practical applications?

  • John McDermott

    I remember when my grandfather gave me one of the linear ones in 1975. It was labeled “Sandia National Laboratories”. I need to dig it out. Interesting thing. As Josh wanted to know, what can I do with it?

  • DU

    This is pretty awesome. How does it compare with modern bearing friction? On either an absolute basis or on a per $ basis?

  • EBo

    One of the few places I’ve actually see one of these in an industrial application was a read/write head of a 5.25″ floppy drive mechanism. I would love to hear about more industrial applications.

  • DU

    I got a measuring tape for $.50 at the flea market for the steel band. Hacked it all together in about 30 minutes. It works pretty well. Having eyeballed all the measurements and using non-precision parts, I can see now what the really great thing is: Low-friction bearing from extremely simple design. My rails aren’t very well aligned and the rollers are just dowels, but it all Just Works Somehow.