As Time Goes By

Evan Zabawski | TLT From the Editor March 2019

What was it like around the time of our society’s creation?

Casablanca was named Best Picture the night before STLE was formed. I wonder if everyone involved thought it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”?
© Warner Bros. Pictures 1942.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the American Society for Lubrication Engineers (ASLE). You have to wonder what visions of the future Walter D. Hodson and the others who started ASLE on March 3, 1944, had for the society.

It is unlikely they would have thought ASLE would eventually included disciplines like biotribology and nanotribology, as those were just emerging as ASLE changed its name to STLE in 1987. Indeed, the world was very different 75 years ago.

That day in history was during a period of great global conflict; D-Day was still 95 days away. The word tribology would not gain popularity until the Jost Report was published 22 years (and six days) later. It is difficult to imagine in this trying time that lubrication or friction and wear could be at the forefront of a group of dedicated individuals’ minds.

The world was in a state of upheaval, quite literally in Italy two weeks later when Mount Vesuvius erupted for the last time. Beginning on March 17, the volcano erupted for 10 days, killing 26 civilians. Among the notable destructions were 88 B-25 Mitchell bombers belonging to the notoriously unlucky 340th Bombardment Group (immortalized by Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, who joined the unit in May 1944 after they relocated to Corsica) and the funicular.

A funicular is a type of railway that uses a pair of vehicles, permanently attached to a looped cable, to counterbalance their travel up a steep slope. The funicular at Mount Vesuvius opened in 1880 and inspired the famous song Funiculì, Funiculà but never reopened after the volcano’s last eruption.

March 1944 did have at least one other group of visionaries embarking on a new journey, though this pair owned a packaging factory in Malmö, Sweden. Ruben Rausing and his partner Erik Åkerlund constructed a tetrahedron-shaped package from a tube of paper, a design they patented on March 27, 1944. Ruben’s wife, Elisabeth, conceived the idea to package liquids like milk by filling the tube continuously, like the stuffing of sausages, to prevent any entry of oxygen.

One of Åkerlund and Rausing’s engineers, Harry Järund, designed the packaging machine while the pair searched for a suitable paper for the tetrahedron. The solution they chose was paper coated with polyethylene that made the package waterproof and allowed for heat-sealing. By 1951 they had a viable solution and formed a subsidiary named after the package: Tetra Pak. In 1963 they launched a newer design called the Tetra Brik—the ubiquitous milk carton.

ASLE was formed at a peak of innovation for phosphorus- and sulfur-containing additives, with the U.S. Patent Office having issued 55 patents for such additives in 1944, compared to only 30 in 1943 and 20 in 1939 (which was twice as many as the average per year for the previous four years). Oddly, though, there were 46 patents issued in 1946, but then the numbers declined to 39 in 1947 and 18 in 1948. Apparently this was not reflective of the number of patents filed but, rather, the inadequacies of the Patent Office.

Sadly, Walter D. Hodson had little opportunity to see how much our society progressed after its inception. Hodson was aboard Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 410 on Friday, June 13, 1947, when it crashed in the Blue Ridge Mountains, killing all 50 passengers and crew. 

The night before the ASLE group met in Chicago, Casablanca was awarded the Best Picture Oscar at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Though it may be trite, I wonder if they viewed their venture like Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick’s final sentiment, and thought it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”? I can say that when I joined the society more than 20 years ago, I had no idea of the friendships I would form. STLE members are truly the most rewarding group of people I know.
Evan Zabawski, CLS, is the senior technical advisor for TestOil in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can reach him at