The purpose of a ball bearing is to reduce rotational friction and support radial and axial loads. It achieves this by using at least three races to contain the balls and transmit the loads through the balls. In most applications, one race is stationary and the other is attached to the rotating assembly (e.g., a hub or shaft). As one of the bearing races rotates it causes the balls to rotate as well. Because the balls are rolling they have a much lower coefficient of friction than if two flat surfaces were sliding against each other.
Ball bearings tend to have lower load capacity for their size than other kinds of rolling-element bearings due to the smaller contact area between the balls and races. However, they can tolerate some misalignment of the inner and outer races.
Although bearings had been developed since ancient times, the first modern recorded patent on ball bearings was awarded to Philip Vaughan, a Welsh inventor and ironmaster who created the first design for a ball bearing in Carmarthen in 1794. His was the first modern ball-bearing design, with the ball running along a groove in the axle assembly.
Jules Suriray, a Parisian bicycle mechanic, designed the first radial style ball bearing in 1869, which was then fitted to the winning bicycle ridden by James Moore in the world's first bicycle road race, Paris-Rouen, in November 1869.
There are several common designs of ball bearing, each offering various performance trade-offs. They can be made from many different materials, including: stainless steel, chrome steel, and ceramic (silicon nitride (Si3N4)). A hybrid ball bearing is a bearing with ceramic balls and races of metal.