Say "Timken" and you might just as well say "bearings." Henry Timken invented the tapered roller bearing, various examples of which can be found in virtually any and every vehicle. The Timken Co. celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

At 61, Mr. Timken came out of five years of retirement from making buggy springs to concentrate on the problem of friction. He often said, "The man who could devise something that would reduce friction fundamentally would achieve something of real value to the world."

Wagon builders had tried ball bearings, but found them impractical because all of the weight was carried by a single point on the ball. In 1898, Mr. Timken was granted a patent for his tapered roller bearing design.

He and his two sons founded the Timken Roller Bearing Axle Co. in 1899 to manufacture axles equipped with tapered roller bearings. Mr. Timken entered the automotive industry in 1900, when he sold three sets of his new axles to the St. Louis Motor Carriage Co., one of the country's first automobile manufacturers. Between 1899 and 1906 approximately 360 St. Louis cars were produced.

Mr. Timken and his family moved to Canton, OH, in 1901 to be closer to the booming automotive and steel industries in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. By 1903, Timken axles and bearings became standard equipment in many vehicles, and the company became a major supplier to the growing automobile industry. When Mr. Timken died in 1909, the company had 1,200 employees and was producing more than 850,000 bearings annually.

In 1916, Timken became the only American bearing manufacturer to produce its own steel. Today - in addition to a reputation for turning out some of the world's highest-quality steel - the Timken Co. employs about 21,000 associates in 25 countries and produces more than 200 types of bearings.

As part of its anniversary hoopla, a team of 15 current and retired Timken associates restored a 1904 St. Louis car (one of only eight in existence), one of the earliest vehicles to benefit from Timken bearings.

During the restoration, the original bearings were removed and inspected. They were still in almost perfect condition - and not far removed from the company's much later designs. - Bill Siuru