A bearing is a machine element that constrains relative motion to only the desired motion, and reduces friction between moving parts. The design of the bearing may, for example, provide for free linear movement of the moving part or for free rotation around a fixed axis; or, it may prevent a motion by controlling the vectors of normal forces that bear on the moving parts. Many bearings also facilitate the desired motion as much as possible, such as by minimizing friction. Bearings are classified broadly according to the type of operation, the motions allowed, or to the directions of the loads (forces) applied to the parts.
The term "bearing" is derived from the verb "to bear a bearing being a machine element that allows one part to bear (i.e., to support) another. The simplest bearings are bearing surfaces, cut or formed into a part, with varying degrees of control over the form, size, roughness and location of the surface. Other bearings are separate devices installed into a machine or machine part. The most sophisticated bearings for the most demanding applications are very precise devices; their manufacture requires some of the highest standards of current technology.
A rolling-element bearing, also known as a rolling bearing, is a bearing which carries a load by placing rolling elements (such as balls or rollers) between two bearing rings called races. The relative motion of the races causes the rolling elements to roll with very little rolling resistance and with little sliding.
One of the earliest and best-known rolling-element bearings are sets of logs laid on the ground with a large stone block on top. As the stone is pulled, the logs roll along the ground with little sliding friction. As each log comes out the back, it is moved to the front where the block then rolls on to it. It is possible to imitate such a bearing by placing several pens or pencils on a table and placing an item on top of them. See "bearings" for more on the historical development of bearings.
A rolling element rotary bearing uses a shaft in a much larger hole, and cylinders called "rollers" tightly fill the space between the shaft and hole. As the shaft turns, each roller acts as the logs in the above example. However, since the bearing is round, the rollers never fall out from under the load.
Rolling-element bearings have the advantage of a good tradeoff between cost, size, weight, carrying capacity, durability, accuracy, friction, and so on. Other bearing designs are often better on one specific attribute, but worse in most other attributes, although fluid bearings can sometimes simultaneously outperform on carrying capacity, durability, accuracy, friction, rotation rate and sometimes cost. Only plain bearings are used as widely as rolling-element bearings.