Get the latest updates on the Coronavirus impact on engineers.Click Here

A tribute to the father of tribology: Professor H. Peter Jost

The contributions of this industry giant won’t be forgotten

By Dr. Raj Shah and Shana Braff June 20, 2020
Professor H. Peter Jost. Courtesy: Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers

Most people take non-slip shoes or anti-slip bathtubs for granted. But non-slippery shoes and anti-slip bathtubs and showers are products tribology has had an instrumental part in bringing about. Its role is in ensuring that other types of technology we rely on daily perform properly, such as the critical function brakes provide in any form of transportation. This is another invaluable service we owe to the rarely touted field of tribology. Even fewer people know the name Peter Jost, who is often considered one of the founders of the discipline of tribology.

Tribology background

Tribology only became widely acknowledged in the 1960s after an eye-opening British study: The Jost Report. This eponymous report was published by Jost, a British mechanical engineer who would become known as the founder of tribology. The report revealed that enormous financial losses were occurring due to friction and corrosion. However, knowledge of these factors is virtually as old as time: The ancients as far back as Paleolithic times understood the need to control these forces. The ancient Egyptians reduced friction by using wheels and lubricants in their chariot bearings and in the contraptions that transported the large loads required to build the pyramids.

Jost passed away on June 7, 2016, at the age of 95, after a long, illustrious career. He was educated at Liverpool Technical College and Manchester College of Technology. He started his career as an apprentice at Associated Metal Works in Glasgow. At the age of 29, he was general manager of the international lubricants company, Trier Brothers, and went on to serve as a director and chairman of several technology and engineering companies. He also served on several industry councils and, until his death, was president of the International Tribology Council and a lifetime member of the council of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. He also was an honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Materials.

He was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1969, and also was honored by the heads of state of France, Germany, Poland, Austria and Japan, and in 1992 became the first honorary foreign member of the Russia Academy of Engineering. He held two honorary professorships and 11 honorary doctorates including, in January 2000, the first Millennium honorary science doctorate. Finally, in 2009, well into his golden years when most would be content to rest on their laurels, Jost was still a pioneer in the industry and looking to the future when he co-launched the principles of Green Tribology, leading the way for the first Green Tribology World Congress. Shortly before his death, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Design issues

Jost’s groundbreaking report, which was commissioned by the British government, shed light on the fact that, for the first time, problems of lubrication in engineering were primarily issues of design. Their solutions, Jost posited, required a variety of skills from scientific disciplines other than mechanical engineering, including chemistry and materials science, solid body mechanics and physics. Jost and his team calculated that enormous financial losses could be evaded because of fewer breakdowns causing lost production, lower energy consumption, reduced maintenance costs and longer machine life. In response to the Jost Report, several national tribology centers were initiated in Britain, although originally it was Britain’s competitors who took the lead in the immediate aftermath of the revelatory report.

While tribology is a relatively new science, paradoxically, Jost paid a debt to those scientific geniuses who paved the way before him and acknowledged that the concepts behind it had been extant for centuries.

Tribology has come a long way since it was first discovered, thousands of years ago, during the Paleolithic period, when a rudimentary bearing was fashioned from the bone of an antler. The Promethean innovation also was used as a tool to spark fire solely by friction. Since the Babylonian wheel and tripartite disc wheel used in Mesopotamian chariots were created during 3500 B.C. and 2800 B.C., respectively, such tribological progress has been imperative to sustaining the very survival of mankind, from that time up through today and beyond.

It was Leonardo da Vinci who postulated that friction is proportional to load and independent of the area of the item being moved. At this seminal moment, an inchoate version of tribology was approached as a legitimate science. In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton weighed in, observing the fluid properties that affect lubricated friction, and in 1699 Guillaume Amontons elucidated da Vinci’s two hypotheses, elevating them to incontrovertible laws.

Finally, in 1780, the last in a triumvirate of classic friction laws was decreed with C.A. de Coulomb’s research, which presented the theory that friction is independent of sliding speeds. Modern scientific studies were conducted in the late 1930s by F.P. Bowden and David Tabor, who gave the discipline the moniker triphasic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that particular portmanteau never caught on, paving the way for Professor Jost to coin the science’s official name: tribology.

It’s all about the name

Tribology is a more apt term than tribophysics due to the interdisciplinary nature of the science, which is a mélange of chemistry, physics, material science, mechanical engineering and increasingly, biology. However, what really helped tribology make its mark was the price tag Jost’s report attributed to the cost of wear and tear. The pecuniary benefit of tribology has inspired numerous studies since. While enormous savings could be achieved with more adept tribological practices, considering the wear on tires, shoes and clothes alone, which is easily in the billions, the benefits of better tribology protocols far exceeds the financial. With its dramatic role in improving the bearings in car and airplane engines so that failure is virtually impossible, tribology veers into lifesaving territory. This, of course, is just one example.

In just about every field imaginable, tribological advances are synonymous with technological innovation. For example, a large portion of global energy production is consumed by extraneous friction and wear, which implies that more effective solutions to tribological concerns could lead to superior energy efficiency and, therefore, a cleaner, more salubrious environment.

As the wheel of time turns, tribology will continue to be of incalculable significance to achieving sustainability and energy efficiency for a variety of applications in daily living. So, the next time you’re taking an evening stroll, pressing the brakes on your car or performing any of the countless quotidian activities where friction is required, take a moment to silently thank the unsung field of tribology, the non-squeaky wheel of the scientific world that keeps all things running smoothly and to its aptly unassuming adoptive father, who took a nameless, orphaned science and gave it its respective place in the annals of scientific innovation.

Dr. Raj Shah and Shana Braff
Author Bio: Dr. Raj Shah is a director for sales, marketing and technical services with Koehler Instrument Co. at its manufacturing facilities/corporate headquarters in New York. Shah currently is a member of the Board of Directors of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers. Shana Braff is a customer service specialist with Koehler Instrument Co. in Holtsville, N.Y.