In the unlikeliest situations the mind can tear off enthusiastically in unaccountable directions. In the bath, or in the watches of the night, or when almost too exhausted to stand, ideas can suddenly start coming at us, fast and furious. It can happen listening to music, too, as I found out last week.
We were at the Wigmore Hall in London, listening to the Swedish pianist Bengt Forsberg play Bach, Schumann and Fauré with artistry and intelligence, when I found myself staring at the wheels of the big black grand piano. And slowly I realised how ball-bearings work. It took me the whole of Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major Op. 28 No. 2, but the engineering discovery was a revelation — and a reproach, too, for never having thought about it before. Ball bearings are desperately important to modern machinery, as in this unbidden burst of reflection I realised.
But why there? Why then? I doubt I’m alone in experiencing inexplicable boosts to my modest powers of thought, in circumstances that might suit a different mental state.
Over the years I’ve learned what circumstances often prompt these states. One is long-distance running. In the days when I trained seriously it was common for some of the sharpest thoughts and arguments to occur while pounding the streets. You’d begin to feel you could almost fly.
Enoch Powell’s fellow undergraduates at Cambridge used to laugh at him because instead of choosing for his exercise runs the many pretty country paths available, he ran repetitively to the railway station and back: a dull and urban beat along a long and dreary road. Powell’s response — that to the station and back was exactly the distance he required — was thought rather grim.
But any serious long-distance runner will know exactly what Powell meant. Monotony and ecstasy can be allied. The joy of training is the internal rhythm it can generate: hard to describe but unmistakable when it comes. The pounding of your feet, the pulse of heart and lungs, become — perversely — an almost hypnotic drumbeat, at the same time calming yet heady.
With the rhythm comes a feeling of power, momentum, unstoppability — and (for me, anyway) some incredible rushes of ideas that would normally be beyond me. I would compose speeches, columns, arguments, letting (as it seemed) something unseen take over. In those training runs I’d feel just as Powell did: that the less distraction I had the better. A treadmill would have been fine.
And music, especially live performance, has the same effect. At the Wigmore Hall, it is true that for quite long stretches at a time I was in a world of my own, and only half listening. But I do mean half listening. The half that heard, like a cat being stroked, induced in the half that was elsewhere a kind of bliss. And as my partner and I were sitting right up to one side of the raised stage, I found myself gazing absently at the brass front wheel of the piano, at the same level as my own head.
I had no direct eye-line to the pianist, but I could see the clearest possible reflection of Mr Forsberg in the propped-open top of the piano: his face two thirds of the way to upside-down because of the angle at which the mirror-shiny black top was propped. He looked like my chemistry teacher at school. Above his face I could see reflected the internal workings of the piano itself, hammers and dampers lifting and falling with the melody and rhythm. And I could see Forsberg’s feet, protruding from beneath the piano, on the brass pedals. The experience was real, odd and intense. Face, pedals, hammers, music had fragmented, as it were, into a montage in which nothing stood in any expected relation to anything else, and right at the centre, closest to my eyes, the piano’s big brass roller-wheel … the experience was poised between Picasso and Klee.
It was then that I started to think about ball bearings. The weight taken by that wheel must be huge: did it, I wondered, turn on a simple internal axle, or did it have proper wheel bearings?…
Then I surprised myself with an unexpected question: did I actually know what wheel bearings were, how they worked, why they worked? I’d been writing about them only recently when complaining in the Times about women who bang their wheelie suitcases down flights of stairs, brutalising the wheel bearings — but how? From mending bicycle pedals I knew the spindle is wrapped in ball-bearings, rolling freely within a circular channel. But why? Why ball-bearings? Why would rotating a pedal or wheel around a shaft within a ring of freely turning ball-bearings produce less friction than (say) rotating it around a simple axle, like a Catherine-wheel upon its spindle?
We were well into the Romance in F Sharp Major when the reason struck me. No friction. A ball-bearing-type bearing allows one surface to move against another without any surface rubbing against another surface. Think about walking on a rolling barrel: you are moving relative to the ground, and so is the barrel, but no surface is being dragged against another surface: the point of contact between the barrel and the ground is a moving point on the perimeter of the barrel, where it kisses the ground; but where it kisses the ground it is motionless relative to the ground, though the barrel is rotating above it. Likewise where your shoe kisses the surface of the steel, your shoe is motionless relative to the steel.
A ball-bearing bearing uses steel spheres as rollers, in the same way; but (the rollers being contained within the steel ring of a circular conduit) there is, as it were, an infinity of rollers rolling endlessly around the shaft — and no metal object rubbing against any other metal object. In theory, though doubtless not quite in practice, the arrangement is completely frictionless.
Why did my father, an engineer, never explain this to me? Why was it never taught in school? Every machine with wheels, I imagine, must employ scores of such bearings — think of how many there must be on a 12-carriage train. ‘Timken’ — I now remembered seeing that trade name on carriage wheels. The more I thought about it the more I realised that virtually our whole mechanised society revolves on ball-bearings and roller-bearings. And the theory, so neat, so simple, so central, is never taught in school, though we had to learn the co-ordinates of the Maize Triangle in America by heart.
…But the Romance had come to an end, and so had the Presto passionato WoO5, and Mr Forsberg’s upside-down-in-the-mirror head was descending (rising) to take a bow.
I joined the applause. But I was applauding, too, whoever invented ball-bearings.
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.