From pioneering inventor to astute manager

    Sven Wingquist, the inventor of the spherical ball bearing and founder of SKF, was the managing director and then CEO of Bofors for a number of years and was also an active member of the Saab board.

    Wingquist belongs to the group of Swedish inventors and industrialists who made their breakthroughs in the early 1900s and whose deceptively simple but ingenious inventions and designs were to lead to worldwide export industries. There are many examples, such as de Laval’s separator and steam turbine, Ericsson’s telephone and Dalen’s acetylene gas designs (AGA).

    Wingquist was born in Hallsberg in 1876 and studied mechanical engineering at Örebro Technical Elementary School, graduating in 1894. After further training at the John Jennings weaving school in Norrköping and a study trip to the USA he was employed at Jonsereds Fabriker from 1896 to 1899. In 1899 he joined the textile factory Gamlestadens Fabrikers AB as an operating engineer. It was there that he started to work in earnest on his ball bearing designs. By Easter Day in 1907 he had completed his own design of the double-row spherical ball bearing.

    Sven Wingqvist
    Sven Wingquist, inventor of the spherical bearing and the founder of SKF, led Bofors for many years as Chairman of the Board 1917-1946, as well as CEO 1932-1936. He was also active member of the board of Saab from 1937. Oil painting by Oskar Spitzmüller, Vienna.

    Ball bearings spread across the world

    Patents were rapidly taken out in a number of countries and Wingquist was involved in founding the company SKF, which rapidly grew into a worldwide industry from its small workshop premises in Gothenburg.

    Wingquist was appointed CEO and chairman of the board of directors of SKF, but stepped down and resigned from his post as CEO in 1919, due to what is presumed to be exhaustion and an excessive workload. But it would be wrong to say that Wingquist threw in the towel. Instead he took on a succession of different roles and would play a crucial role in the development of Bofors for several decades.

    He was chairman of the company’s board from 1917 to 1946 and also the managing director from 1932 to 1936. In the years immediately following World War I, Bofors faced serious difficulties, a lack of orders and financial worries. But under Wingquist’s leadership Bofors developed into a global industry. He supported research, experimentation and development both in relation to new defence equipment and in the civil sector. It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Bofors succeeded in producing its first really significant gun designs, particularly the Bofors 40 mm gun, which was a huge commercial success.

    The inter-war period was also characterised by pacifism and disarmament and strong criticism was directed towards Bofors from various directions. Wingquist was a skilled negotiator and PR man and succeeded in playing down the mistrust that flourished in the press and in the Riksdag.

    An aerial view of the Swedish bearings factory
    An aerial view of the Swedish bearings factory, SKF, in Gothenburg. From "Sweden in pictures 1928". Ericsson Archives, Center for Business History.

    A clear and far-sighted leader

    It has been said that Wingquist’s leadership of Bofors was characterised by foresight and clarity in its broad policies. He made sure that Bofors was an important player in the rearmament of the Swedish Armed Forces during the war years from 1939 to 1945. He was also interested in the social challenges in the company and was both a major donor himself and initiated various welfare measures. It was Wingquist’s idea to create a holiday home for the employees on Storön island in Lake Vänern.

    When you browse through the historical documents today, it is clear that Wingquist came to play a very important role for Swedish industry, particularly in several of the companies which helped to create the Saab Group of today. Apart from his commitments in Bofors, Wingquist was also chairman of the board of Bofors Nobelkrut and a member of the Saab board from the date of its founding in 1937. He was chairman of the boards of Svenska Flygmotor AB and the Bofors subsidiary Nydqvist & Holm AB and also a member of the board of AB Volvo.

    Despite his success and his great wealth, Wingquist remained a humble and down-to-earth person. He was reluctant to talk about his achievements and gave few interviews. Wingquist passed away in 1953.

    Sketch of a bearing
    Sketch of a bearing. Wingquist's patent led to a world industry. Ericsson Archives, Center for Business History.